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No. 2135:

Today, more about ghosts and machines. 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.

Ghosts have been on my mind lately. Houston's Museum of Printing History is running an exhibit called Ghosts in the Books. It holds many of the ghosts we've met in this program -- long-dead owners of old books who live through the personal tracks they leave in their books. Another ghost turns up in the German word Zeitgeist -- the spirit of the times or some animating force in a society. 

A Zeitgeist is literally a ghost of the times. Or maybe a guest of the times, since the words ghost and guest are linked. A ghost is a presence, or perhaps a stranger, among us. I love the way these words play and swim about in the wonderful soup of the English language: ghost or guest, or that stranger in our midst with whom we're obliged to break bread. 

So, let us meet the Zeitgeist that propels invention -- that stranger, at once sinister and benevolent, who appears among us at our table. Emerson understood that being perfectly well. In 1860, he wrote an essay on The Conduct of Life, in which he said, 

Certain ideas are in the air. We are impressionable, ... but some more than others. ... This explains the curious contemporaneousness of inventions and discoveries. The truth is in the air, and the most impressionable brain will announce it first, but all will announce it a few minutes later.

Forty-three years later, Emerson's words might've been a road map for the Wright brothers' success. Everyone was working on heavier-than-air flight Langley, Maxim, Whitehead, Chanute, Lillienthal. There were so many -- far more than I've listed. 

The ephemeral dream of flight lay upon a generation of creative people. And (back to Emerson) the Wrights might well be called "more impressionable than others." They were highly attuned to this ghost of their time. They read everything written on flight, talked to other pioneers when they could, and were deeply moved when Lillienthal died in one of his glider experiments.

Emerson went on to say: "all will announce the invention or the discovery a few minutes later." And, right on the Wright brother's heels they came: Curtiss, Santos Dumont, Bleriot ... Flight was truly "in the air" just before and after 1900.

Yet, this ghostly guest, this Zeitgeist, does not attend every invention. Embryonic FAX machines were first proposed soon after the electric telegraph came into wide use; but it was a century before we had workable FAX machines. The programmable computer also lay fallow for a century after Babbage described it in 1834. 

That stranger walks among us only now and then. His inventive intensity gave us airplanes, automated weaving, early steam power, and the Internet. When he walks, he's not to be taken lightly: such concentrations of human energy bring disruption while they serve the greater good. We have reason to regard ghosts with caution. The Zeitgeist is a High Planes Drifter, come to improve our town, but not without ruthlessly sweeping the old away.

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

(Theme music)

For more on these themes, see J. H. Lienhard, How Invention Begins: Echoes of Old Voices in the Rise of New Machines. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

R. W. Emerson, The Conduct of Life. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, Company 1860/1904 [1860]): Fate, pg. 44.


Zeitgeist as muse
(From Scribner's Magazine, Dec. 1894, pg. 671)