Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 55:
NAMES OF MACHINES

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 55.

Today, we name a new machine. 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.

A. J. Meadows claims that the way we name our machines depends on their maturity -- that we don't settle in on a name until the machine has settled itself into our lives. Try the airplane: a hundred years ago there were dozens of terms like "aerial velocipede," "aerial screw machine," "aerodrome," "aeromotive engine," "bird machine," and "flying machine." Most of these names vanished ten years after the Wright brothers flew. And, sure enough, we've now settled on just two names -- "airplane" and "aircraft."

No one I knew had a refrigerator when I was little. We had an icebox with a rack on top where we put a new 50-pound block of ice every few days. I still forget and annoy my son by calling our refrigerator an "icebox." During the 30s we tried all kinds of terms for the then-new machine -- "Frigidaire," "electric icebox," and, of course, "refrigerator."

The two words "engine" and "machine" show up again and again when devices are first named. They come from Latin and Greek roots and broadly refer to devices that carry out functions. So the steam engine was first called a "fire engine," and it still keeps the engine part. We still talk about "sewing machines," but no one calls a telescope an "optical engine" any more, the way they did in the 17th century. I especially like the name Babbage gave his first computer 150 years ago. He called it an "analytical engine." By the way, there's presently a software package for checking programs called a "parsing engine."

Foreign names stick to new gadgets for a while, but they tend to fade. Airplane designers have moved away from the French words empenage, fuselage, and nacelle in favor of the English equivalents: tail, body, and pod. The German name Zeppelin has gradually given way to dirigible. Today we call a writing desk an escritoire only to run its price up.

The first names we give new technologies often tie them to older ones. So an early name for the first dirigibles was "aerial locomotives," and railway passengers still ride in "coaches."

Finally: play a game with me. Watch, during the next few years, as we change the names related to computers. Watch as we run through words like screen, CRT, and monitor. Watch as we select among names like minicomputer, PC, word processor, or simply "the machine." Watch as we try to settle on terminology for this particular "engine of our ingenuity."

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


This episode has been considerably modified as Episode 1381.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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