Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 503:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 503.

Today, we wonder how to face change. 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.

A new policy came down one day in the 1970s, at another university. From now on, it said, all our computing would be centralized. We couldn't have our own computers. The policy was firm; and it was a grievous misreading of the future. Few people saw the error.

Today, of course, big central computers are specialized elephants. Personal computers have taken over most of our computing. Yet, even today, we struggle to see what the computer really is, and how it should serve us.

Experts concede that the PC actually hurt office productivity at first. Personal computers need personal expertise. We spent too much time misusing them. PC misuse has caused both errors and chaos. PCs have been around since 1981 and we have yet to figure out the best uses for them.

We played this same drama, the same way, a hundred years ago. The electric motor eventually had a huge impact. But we were equally slow to catch on to what it meant -- how to use it.

Before the electric motor, in the 1880s, factories were big cubical buildings. That way, one large central steam engine could drive everything. A spider web of belts from the single engine to drove shafts on every floor. It was like the spider web of terminals that later ran out from a central computer. We shaped factory buildings so the belts wouldn't get too long.

First, we replaced the steam engine with one big electric motor. We didn't see how much flexibility we'd gain when each machine had its own motor. For a whole generation we tried to fit new motors into old factories. It was 1920 before we let motors reshape factories into long low-lying buildings. The first electric motors actually hurt productivity as much as they helped it.

Now it's easy enough to be smart about the electric motor. People in control of their own PCs can laugh when the rest of us dial our own phones and print out letters before we send them.

But how many of us can see the truck coming? What new engines of our ingenuity, already here, will only reveal them selves fully in our grandchildren's lives?

We find a clue to the riddle of change when we learn who has shaped our lives to the computer. It's been graduate students and low level employees. People with few vested interests, working in the trenches, can ignore institutional planning and the common wisdom. It is always such people who find the grain of the wood. Adapting to change means finding that same ability to let go of old ways and vested interest -- within ourselves.

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

(Theme music)

Uchitelle, L., Business Scene: The long Wait for the PC Payoff. The New York Times, Monday, Dec. 31, 1990.


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