Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 660:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 660.

Today, we invent the future. 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.

We engineers ply a crazy trade. We try to design the future. Yet we're quick to criticize anyone who tries to predict the future. So: How can you design the future without predicting it?

We've seen over and over in this series that inventions seldom work the way their inventors expect. Edison thought his phonograph would serve deathbed testaments. Watt said his steam engines should not be used for transportation. People developed the radio to replace the telegraph, not to entertain the public.

All these inventors had some future in mind. Yet their inventions had their own futures. They've shaped a future that we could never predict.

A while ago, I visited the Akihabara District in Tokyo. That's a neighborhood packed with hundreds of electronics shops. Everything from little stalls to huge department stores.

Those shops fairly burst with new electronic gear -- pocket TVs, television phones, and so on. Some of those shiny new toys drew me to them. Some tempted me. But what would happen if one of those devices actually entered my home? Would it carve out a place in my life? Or would it just languish on my shelf?

We've all bought some new engine of someone's ingenuity that served us neither well nor long. Do you remember eight-track tape and quadraphonic sound? How many new kitchen appliances made far more sense in the store than they do on your counter?

The inventor of machines cannot design our future alone. We consumers select our future from the elements he gives us.

We engineers try to parlay invention. We try to extend inventions into some foreseeable future. We try to mold a future from the inventions we've all chosen as consumers.

We engineers also misread the tea leaves. We shape the short term fairly well. But then things veer off in unexpected directions. The consumer will not be predicted.

So the inventive mind does design the future after all. It does so with a sun-spray of mutations. It is the collective intelligence -- the collective unconscious -- of inventor and user that designs the future. A 19th-century inventor gave us the typewriter to write personal letters. It took consumers to show us that the typewriter's main purpose would be commercial, not personal.

You might find that unsettling. But the good news is that the future doesn't belong to the engineer, the scientist, or the inventor. The creative renewal of our world belongs to us all.

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

(Theme music)

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

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