Today, we attend the wedding of science and
technology. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The early 17th-century
philosopher Francis Bacon
started a very important change in people's thinking
when he suggested that science should serve
technology. In 1620 he wrote:
The empire of man over things is founded on the ...
sciences ... for nature is only to be commanded by
We accept that advice today; but in 1620
scientists and the people who built things lived in
The modern engineer came into existence only after
the people who made things had joined forces with the
people who studied physical principles. The first
time in European history that this happened was just
after Bacon told us that "nature is only to be
commanded by obeying her." And it happened because
people wanted to improve the accuracy of clocks.
A mechanical clock depends on a mechanism called an
escapement that moves back and forth in a steady
rhythm. In 1585 most escapements were masses on the
ends of a rod that rhythmically swung back and forth.
But in 1585 Galileo showed that the period of
oscillation of a gently swinging pendulum was always
the same -- regardless of the amplitude of its swing.
The pendulum stood to make an ideal escapement
device, because it always swings at the same speed,
even while it runs down.
In 1641 Galileo's son Vincenzio built the first clock
that used a pendulum escapement. The Dutch and
English physicists Christian Huygens and Robert Hooke
followed Vincenzio's work later in the 1600s with
improved theories of the pendulum and better clock
The pendulum escapement was the first technological
innovation that resulted directly from the
application of a scientific principle -- and it was
actually carried out by the most important scientists
of the day.
Since then, we've listened to Bacon's assertion that
we must bend to nature -- understand nature -- if
we're to control her. Today's engineers are trained
to the teeth in science. Our aim is to make things,
but we know we have to submit to nature before we try
to command her.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Usher, A.P., A History of Mechanical
Inventions. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
1970, Chapter XII.
Wolf, A., A History of Science, Technology, and
Philosophy in the 16th and 17th Centuries.
London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd, 1950.
For more on Galileo and the pendulum, see the
For a substantially revised version of this episode,
see Episode 1307.
Drawing by John Lienhard
A Pendulum Escapement Mechanism
From the 1832 Edinburgh
Detail of the "Anchor Escapement
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H.
From the 1832 Edinburgh
Huygens's Pendulum Clock
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