Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 849:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 849.

Today, we learn to tunnel underneath anger. 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.

In Henry V, Shakespeare thinks aloud about King Henry preparing to sail the English Channel to make war on France:

And thence to France shall we convey you safe,
And bring you back, charming the narrow sea,
to give you gentle pass.
In fact, crossing that cold neck of sea was seldom a gentle pass. Finally, in 1881, the English, still at uneasy peace with the French, began a railroad tunnel under the Channel. They soon aborted it, not for its difficulty, but for fear it would give the French an invasion route. Now, over a century later, the French and English are finally finishing that tunnel. And it is as much a psychological triumph as it is a technological one.

Recently another pair of antagonists sat down to mend old wounds. As the two Chinas began talks, the representative from Taipei reminded the group from Beijing about an episode in Chinese history -- over 2700 years ago.

In the 8th century BC a Duke named Chuang had a great falling-out with his mother. It led to a war, which he won. He put his mother under house arrest and vowed not to speak to her until they met at the Yellow Springs.

The Yellow Springs were the old Chinese Hades -- the underground place of the dead. Chuang meant they'd never speak again. He came to regret that, but he was committed to his vow and to his anger. It took a clever servant to show him a way out:

If you dig into the earth until you reach the springs, you may fashion a tunnel where the two of you may meet. Then who is to say you didn't keep your vow!
So Chuang tunneled until he reached an underground spring. There he hollowed out a cavern. He and his mother met in it, and he cried: "Within the great tunnel; Genial is my joy."

Now, said the representative from Taipei, we too must be inventive! We too must find a way to tunnel around our anger if China is ever to be whole again.

The Channel Tunnel, or "Chunnel" as they call it, is a technological triumph. We've perfected all kinds of new tunneling techniques along the way. But good technology is always part metaphor, and the Chunnel is no exception.

England and France have finally broken an old and familiar habit of anger. It took creativity to break a pattern that reaches all the way back to William the Conqueror. The Chunnel makes a fine metaphor for that creativity.

When workers from both sides broke through in the middle, genial indeed was our joy. For you and I really do own the creative means for breaking old constraints and ingrained ways. You and I really can reshape a troublesome world, after all.

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

(Theme music)

Tso, C., The Tso Chuan: Selections from China's Oldest Narrative History (translated and edited by Burton Watson). New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

I am grateful to Sheng-tuar Mau, UH Civil Engineering Department, for suggesting the Tso Chuan story and its connection with current negotiations; and to Wei Yan, UH Library, for locating the source with no more evidence than two Chinese characters.

See also Episode 855.

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

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