Inventing Modern: Growing Up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins

Inventing Modern: Growing Up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins

Inventing Modern: Growing Up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins

Inventing Modern: Growing Up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins


Modern is a word much used, but hard to pin down. In Inventing Modern, John H. Lienhard uses that word to capture the furious rush of newness in the first half of 20th-century America. An unexpected world emerges from under the more familiar Modern. Beyond the airplanes, radios, art deco, skyscrapers, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Buck Rogers, the culture of the open road--Burma Shave, Kerouac, and White Castles--lie driving forces that set this account of Modern apart. One force, says Lienhard, was a new concept of boyhood--the risk-taking, hands-on savage inventor. Driven by an admiration of recklessness, America developed its technological empire with stunning speed. Bringing the airplane to fruition in so short a time, for example, were people such as Katherine Stinson, Lincoln Beachey, Amelia Earhart, and Charles Lindbergh. The rediscovery of mystery powerfully drove Modern as well. X-Rays, quantum mechanics, and relativity theory had followed electricity and radium. Here we read how, with reality seemingly altered, hope seemed limitless. Lienhard blends these forces with his childhood in the brave new world. The result is perceptive, engaging, and filled with surprise. Whether he talks about Alexander Calder (an engineer whose sculptures were exercises in materials science) or that wacky paean to flight, Flying Down to Rio, unexpected detail emerges from every tile of this large mosaic. Inventing Modern is a personal book that displays, rather than defines, an age that ended before most of us were born. It is an engineer's homage to a time before the bomb and our terrible loss of confidence--a time that might yet rise again out of its own postmodern ashes.


I use the title “Inventing Modern” as a reminder of the creativity that brought a radically new epoch into being, a century ago. I take the liberty of making a proper noun of the word Modern since I am inventing my own take on that epoch. Historians and literary scholars have given the adjective “modern” various dimensions of specificity, and I have no wish to intrude upon any of these canonical meanings. My Modern (the noun) is that strange state into which I was born. It is a distinctly American Modern. It is a highly personal Modern. and it is a condition that dissolved during my early adult life.

My intention here is neither historical nor literary in the formal sense of either word. It is, instead, an attempt to understand a now-bygone culture by seeing it as the product of new technology. Modern is a condition that echoes from my childhood. Born in 1930, I grew up in a world transformed. Just how it had been transformed could be understood at the time only in terms of the broadest outward symptoms. Here was a world dramatically different from any that had ever been, and a single word floated above it all. That word was “modern.” Everyone used it. Everyone knew what it meant. No one knew what it meant.

The old word “modern” had already taken on wholly new implications just before I was born. Now it surrounded us. For example, to tell us that they had replaced their old outhouses with indoor plumbing, motor courts put the code word “modern” on their signs. Modern was our new state of being.

To understand any epoch we must inevitably reclaim some sense of its technological and artistic texture. Many historians have done that very well, but none can ever do it completely. Even the Modern that we all saw at the time was an ephemeral state, one dancing with new X-rays, radium, and radio waves—with Art Deco, Bauhaus, and skyscrapers.

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