Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 592:
A GIFT TO BE SIMPLE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 592.

Today, we accept the Shakers' simple gifts. 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 Shakers were surely the oddest and most compelling of early American religious movements. They were a late-18th-century offshoot from the Quakers. They took root in America during the Revolution. And they held some fascinating beliefs.

God was both father and mother. The second coming was imminent, and Christ would come as a woman. Out of a belief in song and dance they created wonderful music. They practiced a communal life. Finally, they believed in total sexual abstinence.

Still, the Shakers had a fine creative cutting edge. An 1859 book of doctrine begins with lines from the Apocrypha: "O my soul, swallow down understanding, and devour wisdom ..." They did just that. They mixed simplicity and industry with wonderful creative openness. Invention flowed from that mix.

For example, the buzz-saw appears to have been a Shaker invention. Half the motion of regular saw is wasted. You don't cut on the backstroke. We're told about Sister Tabitha who had a vision. She saw the action of a saw merge with that of a spinning wheel. She realized she could make the sawing motion continuous by forming the saw into a rotating disc.

Maybe Tabitha's vision is myth -- maybe not. But wonderful things certainly did flow from Shaker vision. At first they avoided patents as a worldly pursuit. But the outside world made good use of their ingenuity. The familiar flat broom we all use is a Shaker invention. So are the clothespin and the apple corer.

The Shakers finally did join the patent process with every kind of machine for weaving cloth, shaping wood, and preparing food. Still, it's not Shaker devices that take our breath away. It is Shaker design.

Their furniture and architecture have such elegance and simple beauty. They have a cool, lean, soul-settling grace that rises within a life where there is no worldly future.

Yet that's why the Shakers perished. You might think celibacy killed them off. But it didn't. The Shakers lasted over a century by simply taking new people in. Celibacy was one more simplification that many people found attractive.

No, the modern world broke through in the Civil War. Their towns lay in the way of plundering armies. The War drew men off to fight, and they didn't come back. The Shakers' static agrarian ways stopped attracting people from mainstream America. Only orphans and the old came to them.

So they faded away. But they left a lingering legacy of design -- a simple gift of grace and balance. And that gift still haunts us -- long after they've gone.

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

(Theme music)


I'm indebted to Peter Bridges, Manager of Internal Affairs at Shell Oil Co. He suggested that I look into the Shakers in general and Tabitha's vision in particular. He referred me to

Andrews, E.D., The Community Industries of the Shakers. Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, Inc., 1972.

Mead, F., The Shakers and the World's People. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1980.

Nourse, H.S., History of the Town of Harvard. Massachusetts, 1984.

I've used the following additional sources:

Brewer, P.J., Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1986.

Evans, F.W., Shakers. Compendium of the Origin, History, Principles, Rules and Regulations, Government, and Doctrines of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, . . . etc.. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1859.

Neal, J., The Kentucky Shakers, Lexington, Ky.: The University Press of Kentucky, 1977.


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

Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode