Today, a new technology struggles to find its
place. 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.
Before I was born, my father
worked on the Fargo Forum in North
Dakota. In 1925 he wrote a piece about a new
unlimited source of energy. It was nuclear fission.
But, he said, all that energy won't do us much good
if we don't use it wisely.
By then the press had speculated about atomic
energy since before WW-I. By 1940, Popular
Mechanics and Collier's talked
about atomic autos and airplanes. Then Pearl Harbor
brought the lid of secrecy down on all that.
I heard only one thing about atomic power during
the war. A drunk called my father one night. "You
guys at the paper wanna know what they're really
doing out in the Hanford plant?" he slurred.
"Sure," said my father. "Well, they're making front
ends of horses for final assembly in Washington,
The idea of atomic power returned on that dark day
we incinerated Hiroshima. When we saw what we'd
done, we frantically tried to turn the conversation
back to civilian atomic power.
Overnight, great scientists became lousy
predictors. But they gave us some wonderful
hyperbole. Glenn Seaborg promised atomic airplanes.
William Laurence promised sightseeing rockets to
the Moon and Mars. Alvin Weinberg, first head of
the AEC, agreed. Laurence also said,
[Splitting] the atom can lead to such priceless
boons as the conquering of disease, the
postponement of old age and the prolongation of
It was a moment of childlike hope in the wake of
Then J. Robert Oppenheimer, that knight of the
woeful countenance who'd given us the bomb, pointed
out terrible technical problems. Luis Alvarez
warned that using atomic energy to fly a plane was
"to do an easy thing the hard way."
And I went off to do my Ph.D. at Berkeley. I worked
on the problem of safe heat removal in a reactor
core. It was soon plain to me that we wouldn't put
nuclear reactors in cars or planes for a long, long
During the '70s, the pendulum swung back. We saw
that atomic power was a delicate technology.
Optimism turned to fear. By the 1980s we quit
installing reactors. It seemed better to accept
thousands of deaths by fossil-fuel emissions than
to face the lesser, but new, dangers of nuclear
I'm sure we'll yet fly to Mars in a nuclear rocket.
But my father was right in 1925. No technology
serves us fully before we learn to use it wisely.
And no concept serves us at all before we've
invested ourselves fully in building the actual
machinery -- that makes it part of our lives.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds