Millions of people have listened to John H. Lienhard's radio program "The Engines of Our Ingenuity." In this fascinating book, Lienhard gathers his reflections on the nature of technology, culture, and human inventiveness. The book brims with insightful observations. Lienhard writes that the history of technology is a history of us--we are the machines we create. Thus farming dramatically changed the rhythms of human life and redirected history. War seldom fuels invention--radar, jets, and the digital computer all emerged before World War II began. And the medieval Church was a driving force behind the growth of Western technology--Cistercian monasteries were virtual factories, whose water wheels cut wood, forged iron, and crushed olives. Lienhard illustrates his themes through inventors, mathematicians, and engineers--with stories of the canoe, the DC-3, the Hoover Dam, the diode, and the sewing machine. We gain new insight as to who we are, through the familiar machines and technologies that are central to our lives.
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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 McNameeAbout the Author:
John Lienhard is the M.D. Anderson Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering and History at the University of Houston. He is the author and host of "The Engines of Our Ingenuity," a daily radio essay on the history of creativity and invention, heard on many public radio stations. He is also the author of Inventing Modern: Growing up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins. He lives in Houston, Texas.
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