Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2016:
MULTIGENIUM

by John H. Lienhard

Today, let's fill a void with a new word. 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.

We keep hearing the word innovation. It means adding something to what's already been invented, not creating anything new. Most people seem to prefer it over invention. Invention gets put off in the closet with other improper thoughts -- sex, politics, religion ... I can think of two reasons why people dodge he word invention. One is social self-protection. Invention is essentially antisocial; it's marching out of step. To invent, one must be willing to take on the establishment in one way or another.

The second reason is a simple recognition that all invention builds on existing facts and artifacts. Mary Shelley said that quite plainly in her book, Frankenstein, nearly two centuries ago.

Everything, she said, must have a beginning. That beginning must be linked to something that went before. The Hindoos give the world an elephant to support it, but the elephant stands on a tortoise. Invention [is not created] out of the void, but out of chaos. The materials must first be there.

You might argue that the word innovation simply acknowledges the ever-present chaos of prior ideas. Yet the person who added some-thing new to the existing airplane, computer, or jet engine, had to step off into a void. If innovation means more than bending a bracket this way instead of that, let's dignify it with the word invention! The engine, the TV, the violin -- all were built upon vast accumulations of inventions by countless creative people. These component inventions deserve better than the blah word innovation.

Yet we call the entire computer or airplane an invention, when we know perfectly well no one sat down and created them out of nothing. Out of nothing, nothing comes! To build their airplane, the Wrights first carefully studied a vast body of work that'd been done before them. Did they invent the airplane? No, of course not. No one could have invented the airplane.

But, oh my, how they invented! For the propellers alone, they invented varying pitch along the blades, a built-up layered wooden construction, and means for sizing them to their engine.

The Wrights' airplane was far too much to be called an invention. It was the fruit of more inventions than we can count, most of which had been made before. So what should we call the airplane, if not an invention. I suggest the word multigenium -- a thing which embodies a vast array of invention. The computer, steam engine, and printing press were all multigenia -- far more than Babbage, Watt, or Gutenberg could ever have done alone.

The Wright Brothers, like Babbage, Watt, and Gutenberg, were exemplars of one particular multigenium. Each of them was a fine creative inventor who appeared in the fullness of time to show us what could be done with the work of so many. But the components -- the building blocks of all our multigenia were nothing so small as innovations. Our multigenia, our major technologies are each built upon a host of daring, threatening -- and earthshaking inventions.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


These ideas are the subject the concluding Chapter 14 in my forthcoming book, How Invention Begins: Echoes of Old Voices in the Rise of New Machines, (Oxford University Press, ca. 2006).

Before the Wrights
The Miller Aerostat, 1843. From: H. Golding, The Wonder Book of Aircraft for Boys and Girls, (London: Ward. Lock & Co. 1920) Chapter titled: How Men Learned to Fly.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H. Lienhard.