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No. 780:
Old Instruments

Today, old scientific instruments tell about modern engineering design. 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.

A listener rather diffidently sent me a set of her son and his wife's catalogs. She wasn't trying to sell me anything. But, she said, I do talk about old books. Maybe another face of yesteryear would be of equal interest.

There, in the brown envelope, were four handsome booklets. TESSERACT Early Scientific Instruments, said the cover of each. As I read, an older world of engineering design opened up to me.

Forceps, sundials, transits, ear trumpets -- all marched out in their earliest forms. Here was a late 19th-century surveyor's compass -- like one I was still using in 1946. There was an early 20th-century hand-cranked pocket calculator.

Many medical items would hardly occur to you. A 19th-century leech applicator is a bent glass tube with an opening in one end. You put a leech in it and insert it in part of the body -- say the ear. You aim him at the precise point you want bled.

Two 17th-century bullet extractors make more sense. They're scissors-like gadgets for pulling musket balls from wounds. A heavy musket ball went halfway through a body, then lodged. Ball pullers came in endless variety. One of these ghastly tools is engraved with a dainty floral motif.

Here's their companion -- an amputation saw from 1750. It's really just a beautifully gilded hacksaw. One instrument tells how far surgery went without anesthetics. It's a 300-year-old trepanning brace and bit -- like a carpenter might use. But this one has gold trim, and it was designed to invade the human skull.

So we look at pocket sun dials, kaleidoscopes, microscopes, devices to measure the trembling of hands, the intensity of breath. Here's a 14th-century Islamic quadrant.

Two ideas run through these fine, delicate instruments. One is anticipation -- of computers, modern telescopes, theodolites. But you also read the theme of the failed experiment -- the idea whose time was doomed never to come.

Yet the craftsmanship, machining, enameling, and engraving are uniformly stunning. The running theme is beauty. These were not black boxes. Their function was exposed and glorified. You share the sentient pleasure of the people who made these objects of art -- these engines of the imagination.

They were made to last. Makers didn't see how rapidly obsolescence was overtaking them. Now we build to other criteria -- safety, affordability, and the rate of obsolescence.

Maybe that's why these technological pearls, made with the permanence of a Rembrandt, hold such appeal for me -- in what has necessarily become a throwaway age.

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

(Theme music)

I'm grateful to Mary Helen Coffeen for sending me these catalogs. The address of the dealer is

Box 151
New York 110706