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

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9780195135831: The Engines of Our Ingenuity: An Engineer Looks at Technology and Culture
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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 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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Review:

Technology is not just a byword to refer to the sum of designs and applications that enable us to do things like open cans--or make cans in the first place. It is, writes engineer John Lienhard in this imaginative survey, an instrument by which we become more human, a means of interacting with and learning from the world. Technology mirrors humans, and humans mirror technology, and the question that remains is "whether we are to be lifted up or dragged down in the process."

Although he is quick to acknowledge the harmful applications of technology over the years, especially in producing ever more novel and efficient ways of killing each other, Lienhard is inclined to point toward the beneficial uses of machines and tools and the innate beauty of a thing well made. (Not for nothing, he notes, did Henry David Thoreau proudly carry a calling card that identified him as a civil engineer.) As he ranges throughout history, Lienhard offers wonderful case studies of well-intentioned attempts to make the best uses of technology--Christopher Wren's construction of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, the colonial American oddball John Fitch's invention of the first paddlewheel steamer, Mark Twain's financing of a revolutionary and doomed typesetting machine--and to change the world in the bargain. Lienhard's pages are populated with characters who have been largely forgotten in the standard history books, but whose work added greatly to the quality of life of succeeding generations. His book deserves a place on the shelf alongside Kenneth Clark's Civilization and Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man as a spirited celebration of the practical imagination. --Gregory McNamee

About 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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