Oxford University Press
June 29, 2000
A million people tune in each weekday to hear John H. Lienhard’s radio program “The Engines of Our Ingenuity.” Now, Lienhard has gathered together his reflections on the nature of technology, culture, human inventiveness, and the history of engineering in this fascinating new book.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity offers a series of intriguing glimpses into technology – as a mirror, as a danger, as a product of heroic hubris. The book brims with insightful observations. Lienhard writes, for instance, that the history of technology is a history of us – we are the machines we create. The technology of farming, for example, altered life on earth where humans and wheat became dependent upon one another for their mutual survival. We also learn that war does not necessarily fuel invention (radar, jets, and the digital computer all emerged before World War II began), and that the medieval Church was actually driving force behind the growth of Western technology (Cistercian monasteries were virtual factories, putting water wheels to work in wood-cutting, forging, and olive crushing). Lienhard also illuminates the unpredictable nature of the inventive mind, leading us through one fascinating example after another. Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, for instance, were highly passionate, even combative figures, while the almost invisible Josiah Willard Gibbs, living a quiet, outwardly uneventful life, was probably America’s greatest scientist.
Lienhard’s themes are illuminated with stories of inventors, mathematicians, and engineers, telling the story of the canoe, the DC-3, the Hoover Dam, the diode, and the sewing machine. The result is less history than autobiography – for the autobiography of all of us is written in our machines.
John Lienhard is M.D. Anderson Professor of Mechanical Engineering and History at the University of Houston. He has worked as an engineer and educator since 1951, and is known for his work in the thermal sciences. He has also worked actively in history since the 1970s. Is the author and host of “The Engines of Our Ingenuity,” a daily essay on creativity produced by KUHF-FM Houston and heard nationally on Public Radio. He lives in Houston, Texas.