Today, we wonder why we fight so hard against new
technologies. 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.
Nothing makes the problem of
technical adaptation so patently clear as facing
your own failure to adapt. I'll never forget lunch
with colleagues at a technical conference in 1972.
We talked about the new pocket calculators.
We wondered if we should let our engineering
students use them. I was worried. "If we do," I
said, "they'll never learn to use their slide
rules!" Of course that was entirely true. None of
my students today can use a slide rule. Nor would
we even think of teaching them to use one.
In my defense, no 1972 pocket calculator did
everything a slide rule could. But I should've seen
change coming. By the late '70s, colleagues were
writing books on how to do programmable
computations with hand-held calculators. Before the
ink was dry, we all had desktop computers. The
programmable calculator had already come and gone.
So we struggle to make full use of our desktops. I
still have friends who write material out in
longhand, then transcribe it into their word
processors. That's what I did for the first few
months. Eventually I learned to sit with the
keyboard on my lap and virtually think my words
onto the screen.
Yesterday yielded a fine example of people catching
up with a new technology. Three of us had written a
paper about the electronic networks. We talked
about the way information flows without the need of
paper. One co-author announced the paper to her
international computer discussion group. Readers in
China and Belgium e-mailed orders. As requests
flooded in, some came in the old media. Here was a
postcard. One woman had her secretary place a
long-distance phone call.
And I remember a former boss and his stenographer.
He wrote his letters out in longhand. Then he
called her in to dictate from his copy while she
got it down in shorthand. She went off to
transcribe her notes and type his letter.
When I start to laugh at that man, I have to
remember my own defense of the slide rule. For
engineers, slide-rules were once badges of honor
and marks of recognition. I suppose that's what
stenographers were to bosses. So I do not laugh.
Instead, I recall what Robert Frost once wrote
Ah, when to the heart of a manIt simply took me a while to bow and
accept the end of my lovely old slide rule.
Was it ever less than a treason,
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds