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

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 ...

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

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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 than autobiography—for the autobiography of all of us is written in our machines.

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Editorial Reviews

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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195167313
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 12/28/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,344,150
  • 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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Table of Contents

Preface.....vii
Chapter 1: Mirrored by Our Machines.....3
Chapter 2: God.....the Master Craftsman.....20
Chapter 3: Looking Inside the Inventive Mind.....35
Chapter 4: The Common Place.....55
Chapter 5: Science Marries into the Family.....70
Chapter 6: Industrial Revolution.....86
Chapter 7: Inventing America.....96
Chapter 8: Taking Flight.....115
Chapter 9: Attitudes and Technological Change.....126
Chapter 10: War and Other Ways to Kill People.....139
Chapter 11: Major Landmarks.....153
Chapter 12: Systems.....Design.....and Production.....167
Chapter 13: Heroic Materialism.....179
Chapter 14: Who Got There First.....193
Chapter 15: Ever-Present Dangers.....209
Chapter 16: Technology and Literature.....z19
Chapter 17: Being There.....229
Correlation of the Text with the Radio Program.....241
Notes.....243
Index.....255
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