No. 3240: ORIGINS OF ENGINES' INGENUITY

by Andrew Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 3240

Today, The Engines of Our Ingenuity honors its own inventor. The University of Houston presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Dr. John Lienhard, creator of The Engines of Our Ingenuity and also my dad, turns 90 today. This is no small milestone. And so we're here to celebrate it.


John Lienhard 2020

To begin, it's hard to imagine the changes he's witnessed over these nine decades: the turbulent human struggles, both political and social, set against such remarkable invention. Perhaps growing up without the instant gratification afforded by our modern world awoke a different type of curiosity.

Indeed much of this show's DNA can be traced back to my dad's childhood in St. Paul, Minnesota. My father's father had been a pilot in World War I and later worked as a journalist. My grandmother Cathy played piano and sang. And her brother, Brooks Henderson, was a popular local radio personality, thus imprinting the foundational elements for Engines. Music in particular turns out to be more relevant than it would seem for a show on technology.


John's parents


WW1 squadron insignia


John Lienhard with theremin

Growing up, my brother and I used to watch my dad sing in musical theatre productions, sometimes with my mother playing violin in the accompanying orchestra, which is to say, our home was a musical one. Everyone played or sang.

Shortly after leaving The University of Kentucky to join the mechanical engineering faculty at The University of Houston, John Lienhard also joined a church music program. It was in this program that he met former KUHF station manager John Proffitt. The two became friends and at some point, the idea for these on-air vignettes about invention took hold.

I vividly remember the afternoon of January 4th, 1988 as we all gathered in the living room nervously awaiting the debut episode to air.

But it all worked out and to date the show has racked up over 3200 episodes, spawned three books, 13 CDs, a scholarship fund and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of public lectures. In 2003, my dad was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering owing in part to his work raising public awareness of technology and culture vis-à-vis Engines.


John in front of the type of airplane his father flew

But when discussing this radio program, it's important to emphasize my dad's efforts to give Engines a life of its own - he really wanted to extend it beyond that of a single personality. Once the show was underway, he began recruiting outside hosts like fellow engineer Andy Boyd, who's now the program's most regular contributor, along with a cadre of others: historians, biologists, musicians, a film critic and even two astronauts, the culmination of which was an Engines episode recorded from the flight deck of the Space Shuttle Discovery while it orbited earth. At this point it's safe to say, the show is an open collective.


Author's parents in Portland

So in addition to a 90th birthday, we're also toasting my dad for devoting more than a third of his life to this radio program, both as its creator and its ongoing public champion. The shared hope is that Engines will continue to inform a smart radio public on the many ways inventive minds work.

And with that, Happy Birthday dad.

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


All photos courtesy of Andrew Lienhard


This episode was first aired on August 17, 2020