Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 65:
SUMMARY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 65.

Today, a brief look back. 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.

The time has come for me to ask what I've learned so far in the Engines of our Ingenuity. What has this set of case histories of human inventiveness taught me? Writing these spots has helped me to see some things whole -- some things I'd only understood in a fragmentary way before. The effort's changed the way I view my own work, and it's changed the way I see students in the classroom.

First let me explain that none of my examples have been chosen to make a point. I've looked for material that seemed interesting, and then let it lead where it would. The poet Wallace Stevens said, "To impose is not to discover." He meant, of course, that the world is ready to teach us many things -- if we just shut up and listen. And that's what I've tried to do.

Yet certain things have come through again and again. One is that freedom and invention are natural bedfellows. When we try to dictate where technology should go, we simply kill the goose to get the golden eggs. The best inventor also follows Stevens's advice and lets one good idea lead to another -- lets the natural beauty, order, and simplicity of things come through.

Next, we've seen that success rises out of failure. Successful inventors calmly learn the lessons that failures teach them. The winner is also the person who isn't distracted by worries about fame and fortune. Many of the saddest people we've met made wonderful contributions but brooded over a lack of public acclaim. The happiest ones found their pleasure in the creative act itself. Their reward was the beauty they'd brought into the world. Edison, for example, was quite a businessman; but he always recentered himself on the existential pleasure of making things.

Another thing we've seen is that developing an idea can be as creative and adventurous as coming up with the idea in the first place. In fact, it's often hard to locate the stage where we should say that invention has been completed. But we've consistently seen that, at any stage, to invent we have to perceive some simple thing in a way that other people haven't yet seen it.

And, finally, we've seen that simplicity is at the heart of the whole business. Einstein, after all, was a person who wouldn't clutter his life by using two different soaps -- one for washing and another for shaving. And that, finally, is what I want to be able to show students in my classroom -- that understanding a thing means seeing the essential simplicity that lies at the heart of it.

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

(Theme music)


Afterward: January 1, 2000

As I've gone through the early episodes rewriting and updating and rebroadcasting them, I skipped over this one, written early in 1988. It obviously cannot be updated, since it represents the point to which I'd come after writing scripts for the first three months of broadcasts. I have, however, made other summaries from time to time. I did so on the occasions of my 500th, 1000th, tenth-year, and 1500th broadcasts.

I have also come back many times to the issues mentioned here. I'll give the following typical (but far from exhaustive) links to each of these ideas. They are: The kinship of freedom and invention, the role of failure, the unpredictability of the future, and simplicity.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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