Engines of Our Ingenuity: An Engineer Looks at Technology and Culture

Engines of Our Ingenuity: An Engineer Looks at Technology and Culture

by John H. Lienhard
     
 

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A million people tune in twice each week 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

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Overview

A million people tune in twice each week 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. Indeed, our very first technology, farming, which demanded year-long care, dramatically changed the rhythms of human life and the course of our history. 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 a 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 ranges far and wide 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 thanautobiography—for the autobiography of all of us is written in our machines.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"John Lienhard brings a relentless optimism to his exposition of 'the complex mirroring processes that define technology-driven evolution'."—American Scientist

"An extremely interesting and readable book. Examples drawn from agriculture, sanitary engineering, military engineering, steam power, space travel, manufacturing, transportation, communications, mathematics, and numerous other areas of science, engineering, and technology enable Lienhard to illustrate exactly the points he wishes to make. Unusual and refreshing."—Technology and Culture

"A fitting introduction to the human obsession with invention."Publisher's Weekly

"John Lienhard has a great ear for concise narrative, and The Engines of Our Ingenuity is a wonderful collection of compelling stories about engineers and engineering accomplishments."-Henry Petroski, A.S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and Professor of History, Duke University and author of Engineers of Dreams

"There is nothing better than learning a lot and being entertained at the same time. John Lienhard manages to provide this wonderful experience in his Public Radio broadcast, and now in this delightful book."-Samuel C. Florman, Chairman, Kreisler Borg Florman, and author of The Existential Pleasures of Engineering

"The Engines of Our Ingenuity provides a humane insight to the history of science and technology, relating the past to the present, capturing the dynamics of how science and technology has shaped the course of human history, and illustrating how societal environment and human needs have conditioned the direction of technological innovation throughout history. It is a wonderful book for both those not yet initiated in the field of science and technology and those who aspire to make contributions through their scientific discoveries and technological innovations."-Nam P. Suh, Professor and Head, Department of Mechanical Engineering, MIT, and author ofThe Principles of Design


"Never mind kings or prophets or explorers. What matters more to our immediate world are the efforts of people, both known and nameless, who have given us the devices with which we're surrounded. John Lienhard celebrates their achievements, exploring of the mysterious alchemy of technology, science, and creativity that underly invention. Graceful writing, insightful analyses, good stories-a book for technophobes and technophiles alike."—Steven Vogel, James B. Duke Professor of Zoology, Duke University, and author ofCats' Paws and Catapults: Mechanical Worlds of Nature and People

Kirkus Reviews
An elaboration on the NPR broadcasts made by Lienhard (Mechanical Engineering/Univ. of Houston), who contends, basically, that machines are us. Lienhard begins with history, examining the growth of technology from the chance mutations that created plump-grained wheat (which required threshing) to the emergence of the computer. Lienhard observes that the interactions between society and technology result in machines that reflect social needs while also acting as the instruments of social change. Medieval monks, for example, brought hydropower and wind power to Europe and inspired a quest for perpetual motion, which led to the invention of mechanical clocks, which then became a necessity once the Black Death had decimated Europe and put a premium on time and how it should be spent. While historians may question that particular chain of connections (as well as others that Lienhard puts forth), his wealth of detail about the who, the what, and the how of pivotal inventions is quite wonderful. One of the best chapters deals with priority, in which one learns of all the unsung predecessors of Bell's telephone, Fulton's steamboat, Morse's telegraph, Edison's light bulb, and Benz's automobile. Another chapter underscores how machines come to reveal their purpose—recounting, for example, how the telephone was initially regarded primarily as a business tool while typewriters were considered a novelty, never meant to replace the handwritten letter. In due course Lienhard discusses spectacular failures of technology—bridge collapses, airplane crashes, etc.—and he makes the surprising point that (at least in terms of airplanes) it is designed instability thatenablesmaneuverability and hence safety. However, his general conclusion is that "success breeds complacency breeds failure breeds caution"—which leads again to success, hubris, and on to failure. All told, lots of neat stories of invention and inventors, told by a witness and participant who deplores the passive voice. "You and I have made the world we live in," he says—and he, for one, rejoices in it.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780195167313
Publisher:
Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date:
12/28/2003
Edition description:
New Edition
Pages:
272
Product dimensions:
9.10(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.80(d)

Meet the Author

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 1970s. He 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.

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