Today, we learn about ourselves in the Inventors
Hall of Fame. 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 National Inventors Hall
of Fame has added a new batch of people every year
since it opened in 1973. They began with just one
inventor -- Thomas Edison.
Here's a list of the 85 members in 1990. It casts
an interesting light on invention. To qualify, you
have to hold an American patent. That eliminates
James Watt, for example.
Louis Pasteur is there
for his work on brewing beer and ale. Herbert Dow
isn't honored for founding the Dow Chemical
Company, but for his halogen extraction processes.
I've met some of these inventors. I met Louis
Alvarez when my wife's piano trio played at his
home long ago. Alvarez patented a radio distance
and direction indicator. We know him better today
for his theory that a meteor impact wiped out the
Only two inventors are black -- George Washington
Carver and Percy Julian.
There were no women by 1990. We don't yet find
minority inventors like Jan
Matzeliger and Gertrude Elion.
We do read most of the great names from our school
textbooks -- Bell, Wright, Marconi, and Morse.
History is just starting to tell us how
self-serving a few of those people were -- Eli Whitney and Cyrus McCormick, for example.
We omit inventors who didn't patent their
John Atanasoff gave us the digital computer and
changed history. Someone else held the patent.
Henry Ford might've been
left out that way. But he did patent a transmission
mechanism. That's how the inventor of modern mass
production gets into the Hall of Fame.
Enrico Fermi is there because he once patented a
reactor. I suppose it would take a real grinch to
object to Ford's and Fermi's marginal presence
among the great inventors.
The ones I'm happiest to see honored are unsung
inventors who've changed our lives. Here's Wallace
Carothers. He holds patents for
diamine-dicarboxylic acid salts. Carothers lived
only 41 years. But his work gave us neoprene,
synthetic rubber, and nylon.
If you're not an engineer yourself, you may
never've heard of the German engineer Nicolaus
Otto. He invented the four-stroke engine cycle in
1861. Most of our automobiles are still powered by
engines that use that cycle.
This Hall of Fame is a strange thing. It's flawed.
But its flaws tell us as much about invention as
its rightness does. It is, after all, in the
process of winnowing greatness that we celebrate
and define what we hope to find in ourselves.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds