Engines of Our Ingenuity


No. 1559:
THE OLDEST TECHNOLOGY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1559.

Today, we look for the oldest technology. 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.

So what do you suppose the oldest technology might be? Farming came late in history. Before farming, settled herdsmen and gatherers made clothing, knives, tents, spears. But so did nomads before them. Go back further: picture painting was the technology that heralded the Upper Paleolithic Stone Age. We all know the magnificent cave paintings of Altamira and Lascaux.

But archaeologists have also found evidence of rattles, drums, pipes and shell trumpets from that period (although the sounds are, alas, gone). And the Bible, the chronology of the Hebrew tribes, identifies musical-instrument-making as one of three technologies that arose in the seventh and eighth generations after Adam.

As we move back into the Stone Age, the artifacts peter out. But that doesn't mean the technologies of music-making weren't present. We have evidence of another kind. It is that music is a huge presence in societies with the least technology on earth. Australian Aborigine culture is defined by its song, dance, musical instruments, and poetry. We have the sure knowledge that whales sing -- that the animal urge to make music precedes, not only artifacts, but our own presence on earth. And, while music is the most accessible art, it is, at the same time, the most sophisticated. In any age, music-making becomes every bit as complex as any other technology in a society. So I offer music-making as my candidate for the oldest technology of all.

But our own experience tells us more than archaeology does. Experience tells us that music is primal. It is not just a simple pleasure. In Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Jessica says to Lorenzo: I am never merry when I hear sweet sounds of music,... Lorenzo answers her: The reason is your spirits are attentive. ... The man that hath no music in himself ... is fit for treasons, ...

And we know perfectly well what he means. If we can't respond to art, to music, then something is missing. We are fit for treason. Music helps us understand the human lot. Music is as functional as any worthwhile technology. Its function is to put reality in terms that make sense, and that means dramatizing what we see -- transmuting it into something more than is obvious.

Poet Wallace Stevens said that wonderfully well when he wrote,

They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."
The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."

Stevens's blue guitar -- music, or any art -- does change reality. It turns the human dilemma around until we see it in perspective. Sometimes it takes us through grief and pain to do that. It disturbs us at the same time it comforts us. But it serves an absolutely fundamental human need.

And that, beyond history or archaeology, is why music-making has always been the primal human technology.

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

(Theme music)


The conversation between Lorenzo and Jessica takes place in Act V, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice.

Stevens, W., The Man with the Blue Guitar. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, New York: Albert A. Knopf, 1982.

This is a greatly revised version of Episode 137.



19th century image of primitive music

Early Egyptian music



Music teacher with young students

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H. Lienhard.