Today, we aim a gun from a rocking platform. 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.
Ding the War of 1812, warships
fired banks of guns, broadside, at nearby ships.
Seventy-five years later, ships carried long-range guns
that fired from turrets. Aiming a broadside from a
rolling ship had been bad enough, but hitting a target a
mile away was far harder. In 1899, five American ships
took turns firing at a ship-hulk a mile away. After a
twenty-five-minute test, they'd scored only two hits.
By then, ships' guns had telescopic sights. Power
mechanisms let gunners move them quickly. The standard
drill was to set corrections for the range, aim the gun
roughly, then wait until the ship's roll put the target
in the sights.
In 1898, British Admiral Percy Scott watched his men at
target practice. All but one did miserably. That one
gunner had evolved a new tactic. He kept his eye on the
sight. Then he moved the gun continuously until he could
feel the synchronization between his aim and the ship's
motion. What he was doing was subtle, yet it took
advantage of skills most people already had. He'd coupled
the human with the machine.
Scott adopted the technique, and he quickly set
remarkable marksmanship records. In 1900 an American
Naval officer, William Sims, met Scott in the Far East
and learned about the new aiming technique. By 1905,
continuous-aim firing had become standard U.S.
Navy practice as well, but first Sims had to learn a grim
lesson about innovation in organizations.
Sims' attempts to interest the U.S. Navy met a brick
wall. British equipment, he was told, was no better than
ours. If our gunners couldn't hit the target, it was
because their officers didn't know how to train them.
They told Sims flatly that continuous-aim firing was
impossible. Sims finally went to Teddy Roosevelt, who
recognized something in him. Roosevelt abruptly made Sims
Chief Inspector of Target Practice. And so, by 1905, a
single gunner could do more in a one-minute test than the
five ships did previously in twenty-five minutes.
Now think about three steps in this process. First, that
unknown English sailor didn't think about mastering
standard technique; he thought about how to do the
job. Then Scott recognized the importance of
what the sailor had done. And, finally, Sims
championed the idea.
Today, we ask how to shorten those steps. They're all
needed to put a good idea into play. How do we escape
mental straitjackets that keep us from seeing new
possibilities? How do we give organizations the ability
to recognize value in invention? And how do we show
people what creativity can do for them?
Those aren't easy tasks. Not one is easy. And we're back
to an essential fact about invention. Invention is a
willingness to be surprised. All three steps require that
we open ourselves up to surprise. And that is surely one
of the hardest things we ever do.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.