The Engines of Our Ingenuity: An Engineer Looks at Technology and Culture

Book review by Deane Barker tags: innovation, tech-history

I didn’t quite know what to do with this book. I think it was recommended to me by someone.

It’s a collection of essays (?) about invention, innovation, and engineering. I read a half-dozen of them before bailing out. It was weird – I couldn’t figure out any thematic consistency to them.

Then I realized that the book is more well-known as a podcast produced by the University of Virginia since 1988. There are something like 4,000 episodes, each just a few minutes long.

That helped make a little more sense. When read as a podcast episode, they’re less strange…

record scratch sound effect

So, in the middle of writing this review, I got to feeling guilty that I hadn’t given the book enough of a chance. So I went back and read some more.

They’re not podcast episodes, it turns out. They’re really essays about the history of technology.

One of my issues is that the chapters just kind of ran together. I couldn’t figure out how any of them were different from each other. I think this was just a problem of naming (which is something I’ve become more and more annoyed with over the years).

For example, there’s a chapter entitled “Who Got There First?” As I read the chapter, it dawned on me that it was about invention attribution – assigning credit for who invented something. But this is weirdly easy to miss. I didn’t figure this out until late in the chapter.

So I went back and tried to figure when I should have known what the chapter was about. I found this in the very first sentence…

Years ago, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution said to me, “Scientists and engineers are nutty on the subject of priority.”

“Priority” is another name for “attribution,” I guess?

It then launches into examples showing how one inventor got or disputed credit for some invention. Looking back, I think, “How did I miss this?” But at the time, it was weirdly easy to miss.

I’m not totally done with the book, I don’t think. I’ll read a few more of the essays. But I can’t decide if I’m more annoyed with the book for being hard to read, or with myself for not reading it better.

And if that happens, isn’t it the book’s fault in the end?

Book Info

John H. Lienhard
  • I have read this book. According to my records, I completed it on .
  • A softcover copy of this book is currently in my home library.

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