Today, meet Blanche Ames. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Blanche Ames was born in
Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1878. Her father fought
with the Union Army and later became governor of
Mississippi. If that seems contradictory -- well,
stay with me.
The year after she graduated from Smith College,
Blanche married Oakes Ames (same surname, but no
kin). Oakes was a Harvard botany instructor from
the family of the Ames Shovel Company. All her
life, Blanche was a passionately political
Republican. And she strongly pressed such women's
causes as suffrage and birth control.
She was also a serious inventor. When the Catholic
Church managed to ban the dissemination of
birth-control information, she wrote pamphlets for
home use. They included several birth-control means
that she'd invented. (She had four children, by the
Today, the centerpiece of Borderland State Park in
Easton, Massachusetts, is the Ames mansion (perhaps
"castle" would be a better word). Blanche designed
it. She and Oakes contracted to have the mansion
built according to a number of unusually difficult
design conditions. They grew frustrated as the
architect kept failing to meet their requirements.
Blanche finally dumped him and hired a cement
company that would build to her specifications.
Blanche Ames was an artist first. She did
everything from oil portraits to political
cartoons. But she's best known as an illustrator of
orchids. She illustrated all her husband's studies
of orchids, including his great seven-volume
treatise on the subject.
And yet, beyond her vast competence ran a
freewheeling inventive intensity that went where it
chose to go. For example, she designed the
water-control system of dams and weirs on the
1,250-acre Borderland Estate. During
WW-II, she patented a new kind of fabric wire to dangle
from barrage balloons and trap enemy airplanes.
She developed a new system for mixing the colors of
paints; she worked on the creation of a
disease-resistant turkey; she invented a machine
for cutting hexagonal wooden members.
All the time, she pursued her strict conservative
politics while she aggressively fought for women's
rights. She quit the Birth Control League of
Massachusetts (which she'd founded) after they
began linking birth control with welfare.
When she was eighty, JFK's book, Profiles in
Courage, really got her dander up. She felt
that Kennedy had portrayed her father as a
carpetbagger. In her father's defense, she wrote a
book -- his biography. But she wasn't done yet. She
died at the age of almost 92, in 1969. A scant two
years earlier, she'd received her last patent, this
one for an antipollution toilet.
How to explain such unrelenting creative energy?
Her daughter captured her mother in a fine epigram:
"For her to have an idea was to act." And that
calls to mind Henry Adams' remark that his old
friend Teddy Roosevelt "showed the singular
primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter
.... He was pure act." Well, Blanche Ames was
surely cut from that same bolt of cloth.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
I am grateful to Sara McNeil, UH College of
Education, for calling my attention to Blanche Ames
and for providing the following excellent web
sources, which I have used heavily:
Blanche Ames Ames, Artist & Women's Rights Activist, 1878-1969For images of Blanche and Oakes Ames,
as well as Borderlands and examples of Blanche
Ames' work, see the websites above. Also, check
your library for the many books by and about
The Orchid Library of Oakes Ames
Orchids at Moody Gardens, Galveston, Texas
(Photo by John Lienhard)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.