Lienhard: Inventing Modern

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John H. Lienhard, Inventing Modern : Growing up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2003. 292+ix pages, illustrated, with notes and index.

I was utterly delighted by reading this book. I had previously read Leinhard's How Invention Begins, which was a masterpiece of insight about invention, engineering, and society, so I had high expectations. My expectations were fully met.

This book, written three years earlier than How Invention Begins, is more in the nature of a personal memoir, by means of which the author discusses the development of technology in the early twentieth century as a first-hand observer. His idea is that, at the time, there was a mood of optimism expressed by the idea of Modern, a mood that seems foreign and nearly inexplicable today but which drove high-spirited design and engineering at the time. Lienhard writes to discover for himself what it was that propelled the idea of Modern.

One theme that formed the core of How Invention Begins shows up in this volume, namely, that significant inventions and significant ideas, although we assign their creation to a "canonical inventor", seem to arise out of the zeitgeist, as though great ideas are often already "in the air".

One might well be tempted to look upon Planck as a lucky lottery winner, but what he did was no more blind luck than James Watt's invention of the external steam engine condenser. Both were extremely bright and insightful people. Both were wonderfully attuned to the zeitgeist that was forming around them. Neither knew the full extent of change that would follow, yet each had managed to find the precise crest of the wave rising beneath him. [p. 40]

Personal reflection coupled with mature insight leads to small but pointedly useful facts and details; I'd always wondered about those tanks on top of old gas pumps. Lienhard sees them not only as a mechanical contrivance, but as a social expression of Modern, as technological progress on display.

The gas pumps of my childhood had big glass containers on top. First, you filled them with the number of gallons that you wanted. You began the ritual by displaying this new essence. Only then did you let it gurgle down into your tank. (By the way, that's what the French call their gasoline: l'essence.) [p. 143]

In this next excerpt Lienhard gives a short but comprehensive thumbnail sketch of the development of microcomputers, an outgrowth of Modern that nevertheless led us into a post-Modern society. This excerpt also gives us a very clear idea of Lienhard's feelings about patents.

And, indeed, to own one of those [room-sized] machines was to own the fabled white elephant, because, with thousands of tubes, burning out with tedious regularity, a man in a white coat had to be constantly at work. Buyt this was the way we saw the new computers, and no one paid much attention in 1952 when British scientist G.W.A Dummar wrote: "It seems now possible to envisage electronic equipment in a solid block with no connecting wires. The block may consist of layers of insulating, conducting, rectifying and amplifying materials, [and] electrical junctions."

Dummar's idea of casting a set of electronic functions into one monolithic electric element stood to vastly reduce the rate of failures. In July 1958, Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments, now able to replace the old tubes with transistors, finally created such an integrated circuit. A few months later, Robert Noyce, head of Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation, created a slightly better version, independently, and a patent war was underway.

After dumping money into the courts for years, Fairchild and TI saw how foolish their combat was. They agreed to forget the lawyers and share the idea. Kilby and Noyce acknowledged each other's contributions, and life went on. It was a very wise thing to do. By 1969 both Fairchild and TI had managed to put complete central processing units in single chips. Then Noyce formed a new company, INTEL, for INTegrated ELectronics, and he started producing while computer motherboards. Computer costs plunged; but, even then, we didn't see where all this was going.

In 1977, the president of Digital Equipment Company could still say, "There's no reason people would want computers in their homes." And he might have been right, but technological futures are always unreadable. Who could have predicted that the early 1980s would bring shelf upon shelf of shrink-wrapped commercial packages of software into new computer stores? Once you and I were able to use our computers without writing the programs, computers did enter our homes. And they entered the closest quarters of our daily lives as well. [pp. 255—256]

Complementing the technological zeitgeist, Lienhard identifies Vannevar Bush as perfectly fitting the profile of Modern. Bush, most remembered these days as the science advisor of Franklin Roosevelt and the founder of the National Science Foundation, was a visionary scientist and public servant. The author relates how he felt Bush foresaw the future of the computer, but failed in the one small detail of thinking in terms of the analog computer rather than the digital computer. He discussed Bush's ideas before the advent of the digital computer.

The central issue that drove Bush's vision was his search for ways to cope with the mounting flood of information. The flood was only going to get worse, and he knew that effective handling of information would have a huge impact on both future technology and the very texture of human life. He therefore imagined a scheme that eh called memex. he described it thus: "Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, 'memex' will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory." [p. 260]

I did find one tiny inaccuracy in the text, so small I almost hate to mention it. Perhaps I can use it as an example of how I found only this one tiny, tiny nit to pick in the entire book! He writes:

Four years after Planck's paper [introducing the quantum into physics], in 1905, Einstein gave us the mysterious neverland of relativity. He led us into a thicket of counterintuition. Space now had to be curved, and the mass of an object had to increase with its speed. Mass and energy became two sides of the same coin. We seemed to be walking through a hall of mirrors. [p. 49]

In 1905 Einstein published his special theory of relativity, dealing with inertial reference frames, the constancy of the speed of light, time dilation, and mass-energy equivalency. However, curved space did not appear until Einstein published his general theory of relativity in 1915, dealing with gravity and the curvature of space caused by mass.

Whether this is history of technology via memoir, or memoir via history of technology is difficult to say and it doesn't really matter. Lienhard is a beguiling writer with keen insight into his technical topics, and this extended personal essay on the meaning of modern technology, on the meaning of Modern, to the author and to society, is fascinating.

-- Notes by JNS

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