Back in 1987, the UH Cullen College of Engineering was planning a radio spot— a short ditty trumpeting historical engineering feats before plugging the school. But then Professor John Lienhard happened to pass through the dean’s office and hear about the plan.
“I walked off and thought this isn’t right,” Lienhard says. That weekend Lienhard asked his youngest son, Andrew, to compose some theme music. He also approached John Proffitt, the KUHF head honcho he happened to know from his church choir. “Monday morning, I showed up in the dean’s office,” he remembers. “I had three episodes written, the boilerplate, the music, the commitment from the station. He kind of gasped.”
The result was Engines of Our Ingenuity, whose introduction reads the same today as when it was first broadcast on January 4, 1988: “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.” The simple premise blended Lienhard’s budding interest in cultural history with his mechanical engineering background and sonorous, percussive voice (besides being a PhD, he’s also an accomplished vocalist).
Three decades and more than 3,100 episodes later, Engines is distributed as podcasts and at dozens of NPR affiliates across the country, translated into Spanish, and has been broadcast on the International Space Station. Nothing, however, has changed about the format. In three minutes and 25 seconds—a runtime still dictated by the five-minute gaps at either end of the broadcast hour—Lienhard tasks himself with exploring everything from how Edgar Allan Poe anticipated black holes to why Roman aqueducts inspired the Pitot tube, an instrument used by pilots to measure airspeed.
Scripts always fit within the same two-page template, which proves daunting given the subject matter. Consider a recent episode that ponders the very nature of reality, weaving the concepts of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, a Wallace Stevens poem, and the quantum physics thought experiment of Schrödinger’s cat into something digestible even to uncaffeinated 5:44 a.m. commuters, when the first of the program’s thrice-daily KUHF broadcasts runs.
“That one goes off on a thread of quantum mechanics, which is truly a place where angels fear to tread,” Lienhard jokes. “But it just nagged at me. I wondered if I could get away with this.”
For his role as the intellectual’s Bill Nye, Lienhard has won a remarkable fandom. Roger Kaza, a former Houston Symphony French horn player, volunteered for episodes about the invention of white-water rafting and coffee brewing. Astronaut Michael Barratt recorded from the flight deck of the Space Shuttle Discovery to commemorate its final flight. “Some very interesting stuff has come in from listeners,” Lienhard says.
Sometimes there’s backlash to shows on topics like climate change, but Lienhard says the floodgates really open when he mispronounces a word, like the episode in which he framed the U.S. trade deficit with a poem by Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne. As he discovered, it is Milne (rhymes with kiln), not Milne (rhymes with kill me).
“I got a furious letter on that just telling me I was lower than dog sh*t,” he remembers.
Now 87, Lienhard retired from UH in 2000 and has mostly passed the torch to contributors, although he still voices about a half-dozen shows a year. We wonder if, in an age of slick hour-long podcasts like Radiolab and This American Life, he’s ever considered expanding the program. “I’ve never really thought of podcasting,” he says. “Talk about fossil! At this point, if anyone changes, it won’t be me.”