Good storytelling means emotionally engaging your audience, yet for some reason science articles often read like schematic diagrams. "Look at the stuff that comes out of NASA," Lienhard says. "[They say,] 'Look at the spaceship, isn't it wonderful? We created all this ancillary technology.' Have you ever heard an astronaut get up and say, 'I'm scared'? I absolutely believe we've got to tell people what technology is from inside our skin." Recently Lienhard gave a speech at an engineering meeting where he described the experience of being strapped in the cockpit of the space shuttle, sitting on the equivalent energy of an atomic bomb, with no other human being within three miles. Afterward, a real-life astronaut at the seminar told Lienhard that he had captured his feelings of solitude before takeoff. "Suddenly, getting on a spaceship has a reality," Lienhard says.
Another secret for turning gears and circuits into interesting subject matter is the unexpected. "If I fail to find a dimension of surprise, I haven't done it. You have to surprise people. A good joke is surprise." Did you know the polio outbreak in the mid-20th century was actually a result of our cleaning up the water supply? The contamination had allowed children to build up immunities. Or did you know that Henry Ford got a fan letter from Clyde Barrow, informing him that he "drove Fords exclusively when he could get away with one"? In Lienhard's hands, the stories behind how our everyday items came to be can be funny, frightening or even heartbreaking.
Lienhard put together the proposal for the show in 1987. Originally the engineering department at the University of Houston, where Lienhard taught, wanted to do a segment on commercial radio, but Lienhard lengthened the pieces and suggested moving the program to the public station. Three days later he had a deal. Although inexperienced in broadcasting at the time, Lienhard believes his experience as a singer in opera and musical theater helped prepare him for the role (he also has three commercial recordings of his ensemble music). Currently the techno-historian is talking shop in more than 30 markets. The time constraints of writing, researching and recording two to three new shows every week, as well as maintaining the program's Web site (www.uh.edu/engines), finally forced Lienhard, who turns 70 in August, to retire this May, though he will keep his chair as professor emeritus.
"It just struck a chord," Lienhard says. "I knew how to make sentences that didn't spin for yards and yards, and I knew how to write seventh-grade prose for intelligent people, which is something you have to do as well." And now he has spun some of that prose into book form, with The Engines of Our Ingenuity: An Engineer Looks at Technology and Culture (Oxford University Press), which he will be signing and reading at various locations around town this summer. Lienhard seems to be the right man at the right time, a humanist in a technological age. Think about it: Just because you can order everything from food to sex on your computer doesn't mean you want to turn into an automaton yourself.
John H. Lienhard signs and discusses The Engines of Our Ingenuity: An Engineer Looks at Technology and Culture on Saturday, July 15, at 3 p.m., at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, 3003 West Holcombe Boulevard. Free. For more information, call (713)349-0050.