By Dan McGraw
concept of the Renaissance man has been around as long as
societies have prized broadly-based scholars, long before the Renaissance
itself stamped its name on scientists who can connect the dots that
join literature and religion and philosophy and inventiveness into a
cohesive approach to illuminate basic human truths. From the great scholars
at Timbuktu to the Chinese scientists of the Ming Dynasty to the ancient
Greek philosophers, every culture has searched for the voice that can
take the rigidness of scientific study and translate those natural laws
into something more, a teaching philosophy that enlightens society to
the very essence of what is the nature of humankind in the natural world.
John H. Lienhard, engineering professor emeritus at the University of
Houston, would scoff at the notion that he might be a modern Renaissance
man. He has taught engineering at a number of schools since 1955, specializing
in thermodynamics and heat transfer. He has authored five books, written
numerous scientific articles, and won a boatload of awards. His record
is a good one, though hardly unique for a professor who has been teaching
for nearly 50 years.
true achievement has gone beyond the classroom, and it is his interest
in the history of technology that has put his stamp on the modern age.
Lienhard is the host of National Public Radio's The Engines
of Our Ingenuity, minute-long essays that have been running continuously
five days a week since 1988. The program has been limitless in its purview,
but the basic thread that runs through Lienhard's radio work shows
how engineering breakthroughs throughout history have shaped our lives.
From explanations as to how hydropower led to the first clocks, to how
threshing machines led to grain mutations, or to the importance of simple
inventions like the pencil or the door hinge, Lienhard purports that
human history can be viewed in terms of the machines that society has
invented and used.
was basically a lark, Lienhard says on his beginning of the public
radio show. The dean of engineering (at the University of Houston)
wanted a way to promote what we did on a broader level. I went home
and wrote a script. My son worked on some music, and by the following
Monday we had a tape. The first show (about American Engineer
Oliver Evans and his invention of the steamboat two years before Robert
Fulton's steamboat) aired January 4, 1988, on NPR member station
KUHF-FM in Houston and was picked up nationally three months later.
Since then, Lienhard has recorded 1,642 different shows and creates
about 100 new episodes each year (he now reruns some of the early shows.)
His basic view is that technology mirrors humans, and humans mirror
their technology, and in the end, Lienhard writes, the question is whether
we are to be lifted up or dragged down in the process. And though
he is quick to point out failures in technology through historyfrom
bridge collapses to the creation of machines to kill more efficientlyLienhard
is largely a positive and active voice on the real nature of human achievement.
book to the show, The Engines of Our Ingenuity: An Engineer Looks
at Technology and Culture (Oxford University Press, June 2000)
has been praised as an imaginative survey of human achievement. 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, writes Gregory McNamee in Amazon.com's
review of the book.
1930 in St. Paul, Minn., Lienhard graduated with a B.S. in mechanical
engineering from Oregon State College in Corvallis in 1951 and received
his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of California
at Berkeley in 1961. After teaching stints at Washington State University
and the University of Kentucky, Lienhard became an instructor at the
University of Houston in 1980. From 1989 to 2000, he was the M.D. Anderson
Professor of Technology and Culture in the departments of mechanical
engineering and history.
became more and more interested in how technology has shaped our culture,
Lienhard says, and I have always been very interested in how creativity
and engineering meet at crossroads in history and how the impetus for
inventions is not necessarily the end result of how the invention was
in episode 179 Lienhard discusses the invention of alternating current
(AC) by Nikola Tesla in 1875. Tesla went to work for Thomas Edison in
the United States and tried to interest the great inventor in his AC
system. Edison wasn't interested in Tesla's theories, and
Tesla eventually persuaded financiers J.P. Morgan and George Westinghouse
to finance and develop his AC power system. Edison's response was
to discredit the system, showing that the AC system was dangerous to
use. He did this by employing the AC power system to electrocute stray
cats and dogs for reporters. Edison took his war against Tesla one step
further by developing an electric chair for Sing-Sing Prison, again
to demonstrate the alleged danger of the new electrical power. When
inmate William Kemmler was executed in the new electric chair, the Edison
people chimed to the press that Kemmler has been Westinghoused.
71, has now archived his entire Engines of our Ingenuity
radio scripts (in both print and audio) at the Web site http://www.uh.edu/engines.
Printed out, this wonderful archive would come to about 6,000 pages
of material. The archive is more than historical anecdotes, though some
of the most interesting episodes are forgotten lessons of engineering
history. A cursory glance reveals the depth and far-flung nature of
Lienhard's interests: #157, how Thomas Crapper didn't really
invent the toilet; #429, How bigotry sometimes uses and hides behind
science; #516, the achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen in WWII; #746,
the role of creative risk among the rescuers of the Holocaust; #769,
the invention of the paper clip; #1118, how nuclear power has been allowed
to fail; and #1642, reflection on Halley's and other comets.
this collection unique is that Lienhard makes it available at no cost
to schools and the general public. It is a wonderful educational resource
for science educators from elementary school through university undergraduate
classes. On another front, Lienhard has authored A Heat Transfer
Textbook, Third Edition which is available for free online at
http://web. mit.edu/lienhard/www/ahtt.html. Using a $17,000 grant from
Dell Computer Corp., the heat transfer textbook has been downloaded
thousands of times to more than 100 countries, and Lienhard is most
proud that he is able to make his work available to as many people as
possible for free.
get letters from many educators in third world countries that tell us
they would not be able to afford these materials if they were not offered
for free, he says. A textbook that costs $120 is just not
worth it. The money isn't worth it for me, it truly isn't
worth it. Money has screwed up the whole textbook industry, and I'm
doing my own part to make research material available to those who really
Now See This
his long history as a teacher and student of technology's influence
on world history, Lienhard has some definite views on how technology
has affected education. He sees computer information dominated by pointilism,
meaning that computer information brings students and educators to a
point in history without any meaningful background information. We
receive packets of information, but no one reads the whole book anymore,
he says. He also points out that readily available information has taken
the importance of memorization from serious educational practice. It
undermines creative thinking, Lienhard says. And lastly, he says
that modern technology has hurt the ability of students to visualize.
The computer screen gives us a beautiful picture, but it is still
only two dimensional, he points out. The best visualizers
in the world are blind people. What the computer has done is taken the
visualization responsibility from our brain. We are the worse for it.
is not always viewed as a creative place, he continues. Sometimes
we view functionality over the pure creative process. Hopefully, what
I am doing is illuminating the creative history of engineering through
the inventions and creative process that has dominated our history.
says he plans to take his radio show through episode 2,000 about three
years from now. He remains dedicated to keeping his collection free
to the public, and now spends most of his time maintaining the Engines
Web site. I don't know how long I'll keep going, but
as long as I keep my wits sufficiently about me, I keep on going,
long as Lienhard keeps his wits, he will continue to pursue his unique
view of the world. On one level, The Engines of Our Ingenuity
can be seen as an autobiography of the human condition, a collection
that is written through the prism of the machines that humans have created.
For Lienhard, some technology achievement leads to the problems of success,
where success breeds complacency breeds failure breeds caution.
the other hand, Lienhard outlines the responsibility of science to nature
and to man. In episode 18, he discusses how poets viewed the Industrial
Revolution and quotes William Blake's Chariots of Fire
and the poet's view that we are ultimately responsible for reclaiming
outlining our responsibilitywe must not shrink from mental fight
til we've built a world fit for habitation, Lienhard
writes of Blake's views. When Blake asks for his bow, his
arrows, his spear, and his chariot of fire, he's reaching for the
tools with which to build a better world. He's arming for a mental
fight. And that's what we have to do.
McGraw is a freelance writer based in Fort Worth, Texas. He can be reached