ASEE Prism Magazine Online - December 2001
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- By Dan McGraw

The 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.

Of course, 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.

But Lienhard's 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.

“It 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 history—from bridge collapses to the creation of machines to kill more efficiently—Lienhard is largely a positive and active voice on the real nature of human achievement.

His companion 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's review of the book.


Early Years

Born in 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.

“I 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 used.”

For example, 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.”

Lienhard, 71, has now archived his entire “Engines of our Ingenuity” radio scripts (in both print and audio) at the Web site 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.

What makes 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. 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.

“We 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 need it.”


Now See This

Given 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.

“Engineering 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.”

Lienhard 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,” he jokes.

And as 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.”

But on 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 nature.

“He's outlining our responsibility—we 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.”


Dan McGraw is a freelance writer based in Fort Worth, Texas. He can be reached at