Today, invention goes looking for her mother. 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.
"Who's the mother of
invention?" People often ask me that. "Who's the
mother of invention?" There are so many candidates.
Yet the list always begins with necessity and gain.
Of course, invention serves necessity. But do you
really believe necessity can drive the inventive
muse? I have the same problem with profit.
Invention can gain an inventor money. But when has
a craving for gain ever opened anyone's mind? You
can't really take necessity or money seriously as
parents of invention.
Let's muddy the water and ask, "Who's the father of
invention?" At the risk of gender stereotyping,
I'll ask, "If mother nurtures and sustains
invention, who's the seminal initiator?"
We've looked at hundreds of case histories in this
series. They tell us a lot about nurture. I'll
claim flatly that freedom is the nurturing mother
Invention always flourishes when people are free --
when they enjoy intellectual permissiveness. Every
time personal liberty opens up in a society,
invention flourishes. Look at Hellenistic North
Africa, late 18th-century England, or 19th-century
Invention not only thrives in freedom. It's also a
door out of oppression. The theme of invention runs
through the literature of slavery, prisons, and
concentration camps. An unfree person goes to great
lengths to claim a quiet place in his own head -- a
place to be free. Invention is a way to do that.
John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim's Progress
in prison. Evariste Galois created modern algebraic
theory in prison when he was only 20.
But the primal, driving, seminal, origin of
invention has to be pleasure. Who doesn't crave,
just once in a lifetime crowded with pain,
problems, and incompleteness, to shout, Eureka? Who
doesn't understand in his bones how Archimedes
leapt from the bath and ran naked down the street,
shouting, "I've found it! I've found it! I've found
If you've once tasted the pleasure of creating
something good and new, you'll want to return to
the moment at all costs. The only way to walk away
from such pleasure, once you've known it, is to let
something die inside you. Some inventors have done
that -- invented one thing, then lived off the
profits. But not the good ones. People like Edison,
Bell, and Einstein kept coming back to that well of
life until the day they died.
Make no mistake about it. The parents of invention
are pleasure and freedom. And I tell you, they are
the finest parents any child could ever claim.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds