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No. 286:
Williamsburg Music

Today, we hand-build more than just a harpsichord. 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.

My wife brought home a documentary video about the restored Colonial music-instrument shop in Williamsburg. I didn't mean to watch it myself, but I paused when she turned it on. And I couldn't leave it. The video showed each step in the construction of a violin and a small harpsichord.

That in itself could've been tedious, but I was riveted by the realization that the artisans were making absolutely no concessions whatsoever to modern convenience. They did every step with period apparatus. You can't appreciate what that means until you actually see it through from start to finish.

The workers used no power tools -- not for their jig saws, drills or lathes. They did nothing to violate the spirit of 17th and 18th-century craftsmanship. At one point, a small hole -- about 1/32 of an inch -- had to be drilled in a harpsichord jack. The man nipped the head off a straight pin. Then he rolled the pin over a coarse file. That process imprinted tiny grooves that turned the pin into a drill bit. Finally he mounted it in a small chuck driven manually by a bow-string.

They formed the violin scroll, and the dove-tail joints in the harpsichord case, with the virtuoso use of hand chisels. They used a hundred tricks to align wood grains -- to stain, glue, and polish wood. The few nails they used were hand-forged. Making a screw was too labor-intensive, so they used none.

They shaped plectra for sounding the iron and brass strings in the harpsichord before our eyes -- from goose quills. They fashioned small springs from pig bristles, and so on and on.

Finally, as we listened to a Baroque sonata on the finished instruments, I reflected in astonishment on what I'd seen. I'd seen absolute intimacy with process. At each step those artisans knew how their physical world worked and how to deal with it.

Today we wonder what became of an age that produced Newton in England and ultimately gave us Jefferson in Virginia. Those people lived in a world where science and technology were converging, and where every educated person was a generalist. It was also a world where education touched the full range of knowledge, and where manual skill was a common denominator for everyone.

Today we partition and specialize our lives. We allow the people who think about Tudor history, business software, and automobile repair to live in separate worlds. Our 18th-century forbears could build a violin from scratch, read Greek and Hebrew, and ultimately form a new government of and by themselves. They were a people whose freedom welled up from minds that still struggled to see the world whole.

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

(Theme music)

This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 2136.