Today, some odds and ends that tell us something.
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.
You've seen TV episodes made
from out-takes of earlier shows. I suppose they
reflect a kind of frustration. There's so much good
stuff you can't use. But you can't just leave it
lying on the cutting-room floor, either. Well, I
have the same problem. I'll show you what I mean
with three random examples.
The first illustrates the way an inventive mind
finds possibility in commonplace events. Velcro, it
seems, was invented because someone analyzed the
way cockle-burrs stuck to his trousers.
The second is similar. It's about how
steam-engine-valving was first automated. A bright
young boy, switching Newcomen-engine valves, found
he could sleep on the job if he just tied the
valve-cords to a moving cross-beam.
The third is an eccentric-scientist story. The
great English experimenter James Prescott Joule was
seen at a waterfall near Mt. Chamonix on his
honeymoon -- carrying a huge thermometer. He was
trying to show that the water was warmed by its
Stories like this follow inventive people around,
because their minds go where they aren't expected
to go. Of course, that can involve a good deal of
mischief. I knew an off-the-wall electrical
engineer who mounted a huge set of high-fidelity
loudspeakers under his car's hood. Then he drove
down the highway, playing his own superb recording
of an oncoming steam locomotive moving under full
power. I'm told he laughed fiendishly as drivers in
front of him scuttled off onto the shoulder.
Then we also tell stories that reduce brilliant
people to human size. My wife had a violin teacher
who'd played string quartets with Einstein. At one
point he forgot himself and shouted, "Albert, for
God's sake! Didn't you ever learn to count?"
Absent-minded-professor stories are like that.
People at MIT told me this one about Norbert
Wiener, the father of modern control theory. He got
off the bus one evening, wrapped in thought, and
wandered into his neighborhood. He forgot which
house was his, so he stopped a child playing in the
street. "Little girl," he asked, "Which house do
the Wieners live in?" She smiled and answered, "Oh
Daddy, we live across the street."
Whether or not that one's true, it says something
about the thinker's need to find his own space.
Henry Ford understood that need. An efficiency
expert once told him he'd repeatedly seen a fellow
down the hall sitting back with his feet on the
desk. Ford replied, "That man once had an idea that
saved me a million dollars. When he got it, his
feet were right where they are now."
Well, creative people do have ways to shut out
distraction and to focus their minds. And it's in
their nature to cast the obvious world into new
forms. It isn't that stories like these are
typical. But looking deeply into your mind, and
finding a way to make an unexpected jump, is what
the creative process is all about.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
This episode has been completely rewritten as
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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