Today, invention pre-empts expectation. 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.
This rainy afternoon I'm
talking with the head of computer systems in our
library. He says, "I don't read my morning paper to
learn anything in particular. I read it to answer
questions I'd never thought of asking."
He's making a point. I'd asked him to create some
network software. He answered with a long list of
possibilities. My frustration grew. It was then he
talked about reading his paper.
This man has to dance among fast-breaking new
information systems like spit on a griddle. Nothing
he does ever fits the world of next month quite the
way he plans it.
In 1990 he was part of a project to combine the
card catalog data from seven libraries on CD-ROM.
Now the computer scans millions of books in
seconds. I feed it fragments of a title, an
incomplete name, an ill-defined subject. It finds
what was once unfindable with blinding speed. And
it drives his point home.
The CD-ROM system was meant to help us look for
things. But, like someone with a newspaper, I'm not
looking for anything in particular. This system has
become my serendipity machine.
For example, I heard about a new book on women in
science. The system turned up another book by the
same author. That book was about Baroque
stagecraft. It tied stagecraft to alchemy. It also
linked alchemy to an ancient text on Roman
Suddenly I saw history in ways I'd never imagined.
This system was meant to find things. But it does
that so well that it exposes connections you'd
never see in a card catalog.
The other day, I looked up an 18th century
physiologist. The CD-ROM system told me the fellow
had written a very popular volume of poetry. That
was a crazy unexpected find. And it sent me off to
learn about pre-romantic German poetry and the
people who wrote it.
So I use this invention in ways it wasn't meant to
be used. We've only had this technology for two
years. Yet it's already changed me, and my working
I would never've thought to ask an inventor for
this system. I surely doubt that he meant to give
me a serendipity machine. But now the deed is done.
The future is changed.
So back to our conversation: My friend will
eventually give me my network software. When he
does, it'll either serve users in ways neither of
us can anticipate; or it'll serve nobody and be
forgotten. For, in the end, everything that's good
about a new technology surprises us. It has to. And
that is, at once, both the wonder and the terror of
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
I'm grateful to Tom Wilson, Head of Computer Systems,
University of Houston Library, for his contributions
to this episode. The CD-ROM catalog system is called
HARLiC. HARLiC stands for Houston Area Research
The Libraries in the Consortium include those at
the University of Houston campuses, The Houston
Public Library, The University of Texas at
Galveston Library, the Medical Center Library, the
Texas A & M Library, the Prairie View A & M
Library, and the Texas Southern University
Libraries. After April 1, 1992, the Rice University
Library will appear on the system.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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