Today, we do not "yield with a grace to reason."
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.
Robert Frost once wrote six
lines that've stayed with me. He said:
Frost's words echo in the sad story of
Jacob Isaacks. Isaacks was a 70-year-old Rhode Island
merchant. In 1790 he demonstrated a crude rig for
desalting water. The details aren't clear, but he
seems to have invented a secret compound that he
mixed with salt water. Distilling the mixture was
supposed to take less fuel than distilling pure sea
Ah, when to the heart of a man
Was it ever less than a treason,
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season.
For a new seagoing country, the invention might
have been very important. Isaacks talked to George
Washington when Washington visited Rhode Island. He
seemed interested, and Isaacks, thus encouraged,
went to Philadelphia. He told the House of
Representatives they could have the process if they
would provide, as he put it, "a suitable reward."
The House turned to Secretary of State Thomas
Jefferson, because they knew about his scientific
interests. Jefferson was intrigued. He had tests
run and found the solution didn't help noticeably.
So he wrote a report that ended with the words:
... as far as these experiments justify a
conclusion, Mr. Isaack's mixture does not
facilitate the separation of seawater from its
In an agonized letter to Jefferson,
Isaacks cried: "you must be thoroughly senceable of
the injury that report has done me ..."
A few years ago a man came to my office with a new
high-efficiency engine. He wanted my opinion but
required me to sign a confidentiality agreement. I
did. Five minutes later I found that his engine
violated the laws of thermodynamics -- it couldn't
work. He'd already paid out thousands of dollars to
patent lawyers, and he wasn't about to see his
invention blown away by physics he neither
understood nor believed.
This fellow certainly wasn't trying to fool anyone,
and his idea was really pretty imaginative. That
was true of Isaacks, too. Both inventors leave us
with a strong sense of loss. Yet it's risky to
undertake invention. You fail far more often than
you succeed. But you must love, and fight for, your
potentially wrong ideas -- else they'll never grow
into more than whims.
So it is indeed a treason for an inventor to yield
with a grace to reason. Our world is what it is
because so many people have been willing to fight
for ideas. The very fact that Isaacks, like that
inventor who came to me, was wrong doesn't damp my
respect. I honor them because our world is
necessarily built by people with the courage to
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds