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
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
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.
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