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No. 137:

Today, we look for the oldest technology. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

What's the oldest technology? Farming came late in history. Before farming, settled herdsmen and gatherers made clothing, knives, tents, spears -- but so did nomads before them. Go back further: archaeology tells us that pictures and music were among stone-age technologies. Some really magnificent cave paintings survive, along with evidence of rattles, drums, pipes, and shell trumpets. Even the Bible -- the chronology of the Hebrew tribes -- identifies musical-instrument-making as one of three technologies that arose in the 7th and 8th generations after Adam.

Music is clearly as old as any technology we can date. Couple that with the sure knowledge that whales sing -- that the animal urge to make music precedes technology, and I offer music-making as my candidate for the oldest technology of all.

The societies with the least technology on earth are strongly tied to music. Australian aborigine culture is defined by its song, dance, musical instruments, and poetry. Music is the most accessible art, and -- at the same time -- the most sophisticated. In almost any age, or any society, music-making is every bit as complex as other technologies.

But our own experience tells us as much as archaeology does. Experience tells us that music is primal. It's not just a simple pleasure. A Shakespearean lady says, "I am never merry when I hear sweet sounds of music," and her lover answers:

The reason is your spirits are attentive. The man that hath no music in himself is fit for treason ...

and we know what he means. If we can't respond to art -- to music -- then something's missing. We are fit for treason. Music helps us understand the human lot. Music is as functional as any worthwhile technology. Its function is to put reality in terms that make sense. That means dramatizing what we see -- transmuting it into something more than what's obvious. Wallace Stevens wrote:

They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."
The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."

The blue guitar -- music, or any art -- does change reality. It turns the human dilemma around until we see it in perspective. Sometimes it takes us through grief and pain to do that. It disturbs us at the same time it comforts us. But it serves such a fundamental human need. That's why I'm so sure that music-making had to be the first human technology.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

The conversation takes place between Lorenzo and Jessica in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, Act V, Scene 1.

Stevens, W., The Man with the Blue Guitar, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Albert A. Knopf, 1982. This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1559.


(From an 1882 German Bible)
Musical instruments of Biblical times