Cover image for The engines of our ingenuity : an engineer looks at technology and culture
The engines of our ingenuity : an engineer looks at technology and culture
Lienhard, John H., 1930-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2000.
Physical Description:
viii, 262 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
T14.5 .L52 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



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 wecreate. 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 ourmachines.

Author Notes

John Lienhard is M.D. Anderson Professor of Mechanical Engineering and History at the University of Houston.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Based on episodes from Lienhard's widely broadcast public radio series, this intriguing set of essays begins with a simple premise: more than we often care to admit, our lives are shaped by our machines. Fleshing out this proposition, Lienhard ransacks 2,000 years of scientific and technological history, cobbling together a quirky biography of the strange being he calls homo technologicus. From Galileo's inspired tinkerings to a thumbnail history of the DC-3, this book plunges into the annals of mechanical culture and turns up a technophile's delight of canny observations. For example, an obscure German clergyman suggested that the Americas be named for the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci, and one of Napoleon's resident archeologists turned up the Rosetta Stone during a military stalemate in Egypt. A fascinating history of St. Paul's Cathedral in London reveals that architect Christopher Wren sneaked the magnificent dome into his plans after a stodgy commission insisted on an ungainly spire instead. Then there's J. Willard Gibbs, the man Lienhard calls "the greatest American scientist who has ever lived," who made forays into vector analysis and statistical mechanics that paved the way for Einstein and Fermi. Though Lienhard groups his material conceptually (one chapter reviews major landmarks in the history of inventions, another examines war and technology), his freewheeling associations can make one's head spin. Still, approached as an almanac of serendipitous discoveries, this work remains a fitting introduction to the human obsession with invention. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Lienhard (Univ. of Houston), engineer, educator, and historian of technology, and author of a radio program by the same name, offers 17 essays based on the radio program that are easily read individually or all together. The themes of creativity and innovation unify the essays, which are full of stories about the development of technology, and are highlighted by small drawings or pictures scattered throughout. The majority of the essays discuss technology in the US in the last 100 years and include discussions of war, flight, invention, skyscrapers, the role of machines, and the black box. The first essay raises the question "Are we mirrored by our machines?" or "Do our machines mirror us?" to which the author answers--both. One of the essays discusses "major landmarks" of technology and culture that include the wheel, camera, thermometer, and computer; another addresses priority of invention and traces back the story of the steamboat, the telegraph, electric lighting, the automobile, the ambulance, and the Linotype machine. An easy read and good introduction to thinking about technology within a sociocultural context. All levels. W. K. Bauchspies; Pennsylvania State University, University Park

Table of Contents

Prefacep. vii
1 Mirrored by Our Machinesp. 3
2 God, the Master Craftsmanp. 20
3 Looking Inside the Inventive Mindp. 35
4 The Common Placep. 55
5 Science Marries into the Familyp. 70
6 Industrial Revolutionp. 86
7 Inventing Americap. 96
8 Taking Flightp. 115
9 Attitudes and Technological Changep. 126
10 War and Other Ways to Kill Peoplep. 139
11 Major Landmarksp. 153
12 Systems, Design, and Productionp. 167
13 Heroic Materialismp. 179
14 Who Got There Firstp. 193
15 Ever-Present Dangersp. 209
16 Technology and Literaturep. 219
17 Being Therep. 229
Correlation of the Text with the Radio Programp. 241
Notesp. 243
Indexp. 255