It is fair to say that Jean Joseph Étienne Lenoir had no idea what he was doing. Or rather, that he knew exactly what he was doing, but had no idea where his doings would lead.
Lenoir was a Belgian engineer working in 19th century Paris who solved, crudely, the problem of the internal combustion engine, almost immediately attaching it to a cart he called a hippomobile. Lenoir was an engineer. Engineers live to solve problems. The problem Lenoir solved—how to design an engine with the fire on the inside—led inexorably to the modern automobile, of which Lenoir could reasonably claim to be the inventor (if not the perfector).
I like to think of Lenoir as a tireless tinkerer, working all hours to improve his invention, inattentive to the fame and wealth which might attend its widespread adoption. As it turned out, he died broke, though at least a little famous.
I am willing to bet that Lenoir was not thinking of 21st century Houston when he was working. Houston is a city that, although it has made great strides in improving its public transit options, is almost entirely dependent on automobile travel for education, commerce, and socialization. Houston, even its boosters would admit, is a sprawling metropolis with veins and arteries made of asphalt and concrete. Modern Houston was a consequence so far from Lenoir’s time (nearly a hundred years) that it would have required superhuman prescience to foresee. I seriously doubt that he foresaw it.
What hath Lenoir wrought? In rough terms:
- 60 million new internal combustion vehicles manufactured per year worldwide
- Around a trillion dollars (U.S.) per year of economic output, something in the range of 7 percent of U.S. gross domestic product
- 13,647 new miles (almost 22,000 km) of roadway per year in the U.S. alone
- More than one million worldwide traffic-related deaths per year, a majority of these in developing countries
- 1.1 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions in the U.S. alone in 2008
I think it fair to say that Jean Joseph Ã‰tienne Lenoir had none of these consequences in mind when he set himself to the task of making a working internal combustion engine. That is a persistent problem with technology: we consistently underestimate its potential impact—on the environment, on our culture, and on our lives.
I’m not saying that we should hang the guilt of a million traffic deaths per annum around the neck of Jean Joseph Ã‰tienne Lenoir. He was one of dozens of engineers trying to solve the same problem at the same time. I am saying that Lenoir’s work—along with others’—is more responsible for the shape and character of modern Houston than any ten urban planners, mayors, or real estate developers you’d care to name.
It may be an overstatement to say Lenoir’s invention has destroyed the American city. It is not an overstatement to say that it changed how cities are made, and not always for the better. The widespread adoption of the private automobile, which began in the 1920s and accelerated to the point of ubiquity, exerted a spreading and flattening on cities not unlike what happens to a melon dropped from the top of a skyscraper. Moreover, the automobile inculcated a notion in the minds of North Americans that distance is irrelevant: we choose where to live with little or no thought to where we work or worship. The car achieved one of Modernism’s most cherished goals—making geography irrelevant.
Do I wish we could perform a historical assassination and kill Lenoir before he could perfect his hippomobile? Not at all. To prevent the automobile, we would have to travel back in time and kill dozens, if not hundreds of European tinkerers. And even then we would fail. The internal combustion engine, and hence the automobile, was as inevitable as arthritis. What I do suggest, and what we should encourage thoughtfully and carefully at the dawn of the Internet age, is more thought and public discussion before each new technology is adopted willy-nilly in our rush to be up to date. As Andy Crouch likes to ask, what cultural goods does this technology make possible? And which does it make impossible? This would have been a helpful discussion to have in, say, 1934 before cars reshaped our cities.
I flatter myself to think that had I been around in 1934, I might have argued against the coming automobile suburbs, surface parking lots, and grade-separated roadways that riddled downtowns from Newfoundland to Los Angeles. Not that anyone would have listened. The siren call of “progress” after World War II proved irresistible; only now have we the perspective needed to regret some of the progress we freely embraced in the past 60 years.
My point is this: technical innovation is not always an unalloyed good. I have no wish to stifle innovation; engineers are created to solve technical problems the way dancers are created to leap and whirl. What is needed is a better way for our culture (or any culture) to deal thoughtfully with innovation’s consequences before those consequences become irreparable. Doing our best to ask and answer Crouch’s questions would be a good start. Would such a structure, in place prior to World War II, have prevented the orgy of thoughtless destruction wrought on our cities by the technological heirs of Jean Joseph Étienne Lenoir? Perhaps not. But at least we would have had a fighting chance.