Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2162:
NEW QUOTATIONS

by John H. Lienhard

Today, some new quotations. 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.

Books of quotations are curious, because an invented phrase is like an invented machine. The parade of its antecedents retreats back through time. Fred Shapiro's new Yale Book of Quotations helps us sort that evolutionary process.

Take Isaac Newton's self-serving claim that he's seen further by standing on the shoulders of Giants. (I say self-serving because Newton clearly saw his antecedents as smaller than himself.) Shapiro gives the remark to Newton, but he also quotes 16th-century scholar Robert Burton who said, "A dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself." Newton deftly bends an older idea to his own advantage.

Perhaps my reaction mirrors a remark by Heywood Broun. He says that Joyce Kilmer produced the most insincere line ever given us by a mortal when he wrote, "Poems are made by fools like me."

In any case, many famous remarks are much older than we might think. "War is hell," for example came not from Sherman but from Napoleon. Garbo did indeed speak the line, "I want to be alone;" but in the movie Grand Hotel. The line was, in turn, written by Vicki Baum in the play on which the movie was based.

Then some delicious surprises, like this one: In 1794, Charles Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, wrote, "Would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts ... and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!" There we already find the evolution part of Charles Darwin's idea, but lacking the mechanism of natural selection.

We also find so many unexpected random gems, hitherto unfamiliar (at least to me). Like Franz Kafka's remark that "A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us." Or Rilke's lines, "Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying." Then there's Gustav Mahler visiting Niagara Falls. One of his cravings finally fulfilled, he cries, "Fortissimo at last!"

The book tilts, as one might expect, toward literature. One does not find Howard Hughes' "Tell them when they crash to turn off the switches" or Biot's cry when Pasteur shows him the first chiral molecules, "I have dreamt science, but now I have seen science." Nor do we hear Watt-engine-builder Matthew Boulton telling Boswell, "I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have -- POWER."

But then, so many words have been written. No book of quotations will ever do more than scratch the surface; and this one scratches very well indeed. Shapiro is perhaps even self-effacing when he quotes Emerson: "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know."

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

(Theme music)


The Yale Book of Quotations. Ed. Fred R. Shapiro, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006).

War is Heck!

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.