Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 366:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we talk about Christopher Robin and American industry. 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.

When I was young, my father read the poems of A.A. Milne to me. Milne was a playwright, but his real fame came from the poems he wrote for and about his young son, Christopher Robin.

The Milne poems center on a theme. It is that we must bind ourselves to action. He tells of Sir Thomas Tom of Appledore, the knight whose armor didn't squeak. We're told that

... if he didn't fight too much,
It wasn't that he did not care
For blips and buffetings and such,
But felt that it was hardly fair
To risk, by frequent injuries,
A brain as delicate as his.
Sir Thomas Tom, sitting at home and oiling his armor, made a typical Milne moral fable of action and inaction.

Today, America itself retreats from the world of making and doing. We might well reread Milne's simple messages. Look at cars, chemicals, commercial airplanes, machine tools, computers, steel, and textiles. In 1972 our imports in these areas were twice our exports. Today we import far more of these goods than we make. In most of these key areas our trade balances have become desperately negative.

Like Sir Thomas Tom, our post-war engineering schools began regarding the brain as too delicate an instrument to occupy the coarse world of production and manufacturing. A few years ago, we thought America would emerge as the great international broker of a new commodity -- information. Yet we've now taken some of our worst beatings in information-handling equipment. Our trade balances have crashed in consumer electronics, semiconductors, computers, and copiers, right along with cars and heavy machinery.

We can read these troubles in the words we use when we speak to our young. A.A. Milne described his son Christopher on a rainy day: "Let it rain! Who cares? I've a train upstairs, With a brake Which I make From a string Sort of thing." The next generation was told only that they "deserved a break today." We've replaced the vision of a child, actively creating his own material world, with a deadly cocoon of inaction.

So I remember my father reading me Milne's story of the king whose lord high chancellor wouldn't run to answer the door. "'I've often walked, but I never, never, ran. Never, never, never,' quoth he." Finally, the king answered his own door and found a beggar. Straightaway, he made him the new lord high chancellor. Then Milne tells us:

This tale [points a moral] on the way.
... Whatever Fortune brings,
Don't be afraid of doing things.
That's more than advice for a child. It's the best advice we can give to a country that's stopped making things.

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

(Theme music)

Milne, A.A., The Knight Whose Armour Didn't Squeak. The Engineer. and King Hilary and the Beggarman. Now We are Six. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. 1927. (The action theme is gently but inexorably driven home in almost all the poems in the book. I've quoted only from the three cited.)

Dertouzos, M.L., Lester, R.K., and Solow, R.M., Made in America: Regaining the Productive Edge. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1989.


Whenever I'm a shining Knight,
I buckle on my armour tight;
And then I look about for things,
Like Rushings-Out, and Rescuings,
And fighting all the Dragons there.
And sometimes when our fights begin,
I think I'll let the Dragons win ...
And then I think perhaps I won't,
Because they're Dragons, and I don't.
A.A. Milne
Now We Are Six
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H. Lienhard.