Skip to main content
In Every Issue
Engines of our Ingenuity
Episode No. 471 — Then and Now

John Lienhard

By John Lienhard

Today, I ask if things have really changed in my lifetime. 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.

We pass our days adapting to one new technology after another. No one seems to alter life radically. When the word processor entered my life, it was blessed relief. Yet I would not say that the earth moved on that day.

Last night I put myself to sleep by running a mental inventory of such change. It was a shock. My first memories are from the depression years of the mid-thirties. I lived in a middle-class home with fairly modern parents.

It was a large 13-room house. We heated it with a coal furnace. Shoveling coal in, and taking clinkers out, were daily chores. There was no domestic air conditioning. We had one bathroom upstairs. A second commode in the basement was an unusual luxury.

We had an icebox — not a refrigerator. Every few days a horse-drawn wagon, filled with ice and straw, came by. A man with a rubber shoulder guard grabbed a 50-pound block of ice with tongs, slung it on his back, and carried it to the icebox. We'd steal shards of ice to lick while he was gone.

Now and then a man with a handcart came down the street sharpening knives and scissors. We forget that kind of amenity. We forget the deliveries of milk, groceries, and medicine. Doctors made house calls; yet the dentist, who began drilling my teeth when I was six, never used any pain killer.

We looked to the sky more then than now. It was full of interesting things — DC-3s, biplanes, blimps, dirigibles, and skywriting. Skywriting was difficult. The letters were hard to position and quickly windblown. Once in a while some skywriter, drunk and angry, would pen his four-letter curse in the heavens.

Our car had an automatic starter. Some neighbors still had to crank theirs. We traveled a great deal on foot and on the electric trolley. My mother never did learn to drive. We got our first bikes when we were ten. They had balloon tires and no gear shift. My father did his own photo finishing in the basement. During prohibition, up to 1933, he also made gin down there.

We had one radio in the house. We gathered around it for programs. The notion of individual radios was unheard of. We spent as much time around the piano. It was expected that you'd make your own music at social gatherings.

That life had its own texture — a good texture in many ways. But when I cut away the haze of childhood, I see it's not a life I'd want back. I realize the enormity of change. And I see that change itself is the shared element between life then and life now.

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


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is a nationally recognized radio program authored and voiced by John Lienhard, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering and history at the University of Houston and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. The program first aired in 1988, and since then more than 2,800 episodes have been broadcast. For more information about the program, visit

Share This Story: