Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 647:
FOREIGN LITERATURE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 647.

Today, young America reads -- and comes of age. 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.

Here are issues of a magazine called The Museum of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art. They're from 1839 and 40. The magazine came out as four hard-bound books each year. It was published in Philadelphia. But the contents are all reprints from English and European magazines. This is early America running to keep up with its cultural roots.

The writing is dense -- small type and no pictures. We see chapters of the original Nicholas Nickleby, issued in serial form. We read accounts of travel to Asia and Canada.

These were my great-grandfather's magazines. One of his 17 children has doodled on the end papers. He's practiced long division. He's sketched and written notes. I suspect the boy also read about travel. He ran off to sea when he was only 14.

The magazine's claim to an interest in science is thin. Maybe the travelogues fall under the rubric of geography.

Here's a review of a new book on diet. The book's primary advice is that, if you eat less, you'll stay healthier. Maybe that's less naive than it sounds.

An item written in London catches my eye. It's about "A Ride on [a] Steam-Coach." The author rises at four in the morning to ride this embryonic automobile. The adventure has to be undertaken before there's traffic on the road.

This English steam car, built only two decades after Napoleon, is bulky and overpowered. Fifty horsepower is far more than it needs. The author wonders why the builder didn't at least apply some paint to make it look pretty.

The car ran up Shooter's Hill without trouble. Shooter's Hill was still a standard challenge to cars in 1900. The machine was doing well. Then, suddenly, it stopped on Maize Hill.

"What's wrong?" cries the driver. "The clutch is broken," says his helper. "What's it made of?" "It's made of cast iron." "CAST IRON!" says the driver, dripping contempt. "Go back and have them make one of wrought iron." For now, he can't shift gears. He has to back the vehicle home.

Later, at breakfast, the driver explains that they were all quite safe riding next to the steam boiler. The water boils in tubes, not in an open chamber. If one tube broke, it wouldn't cause a major explosion.

So we read and we learned. My grand-uncle Edward went off to sea. We thought about adventure. We thought about machines. We were poised to come of age. Soon, America defined high technology -- then high literature. Soon, we could leave magazines like this -- to gather dust.

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

(Theme music)


The Museum of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Philadelphia: E. Littell & Co., see especially Vol. XI -- New Series, May to Aug., 1840, pp. 305-315; and Vol. XII -- New Series, Sept. to Dec. 1840, pp. 182-183.


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

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