Today, help me look for engineering masterpieces.
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 Champaign, Illinois, the
other day I found a book by art historian Kenneth
Clark in the Blue Rock Bookstore. Clark asked,
"What is a Masterpiece?" Later, when my host picked
me up, I asked him, "What are the technological
masterpieces? -- The clock, the violin?" He said,
"Don't forget the internal combustion engine."
But something was wrong. Those are great classes of
machines. For every Amati there are a thousand
lesser violins; for every 8-cylinder Rolls-Royce,
how many lawn-mower engines? We needed to be
specific. I turned back to Clark.
Clark had hoped that, by defining the word
masterpiece, he could drive "one more
nail into the coffin of subjectivity." Now he
admits that the judgment must be subjective. The
best he can do is set some guidelines. He shows us
great paintings, all different, and looks for
related elements. Rembrandt's "Old Man in an
Armchair" and Picasso's "Guernica" are both
masterpieces by any subjective measure. They must
have something in common!
So I ask the same thing of specific machines. The
Douglas DC-3 airplane and
the Golden Gate Bridge
are surely engineering masterpieces. What do they
hold in common?
Clark does an end-run on the question. There's so
much human folly, he says: cruelty, ignorance,
intolerance. In the face of that, the mark of the
masterpiece is that it saves our confidence. It's
work by a genius "who has been absorbed into the
spirit of the time" -- someone who has made his
individual experience universal. One way or
another, a true masterpiece reveals our own
potential for greatness.
When I was a child I watched the new DC-3s flying
majestically overhead. They told me that I was
viable -- that I also owned the germ of creative
power they represented.
When he was four, my older son gazed across San
Francisco Bay at that gossamer bridge and cried,
"Golden Great Bridge!" That was more than a
childish slip -- it was primal recognition.
That bridge is a work of genius that speaks our
universal craving for beauty and connection. It
expresses our love of lightness and buoyancy. Like
the DC-3, it says things can function
beautifully in a world where things so often do
A masterpiece is handiwork which, because it
reflects what it is to be human in a particular
age, is empowered to tell us what it is to be human
in any age. The Eiffel
Tower is as surely a masterpiece as Chartres Cathedral or the
Taj Mahal. Coleridge wrote Kubla
Khan as Watt
perfected his steam engine. And those masterpieces
both tell us that creative power just as surely
rises up in you and me -- and that it still
transforms the earth today.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds