Today, some thoughts on fame and fortune. 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.
There's a hymn that's
well-known in England. It's based on a text from
the Apocryphal Book of Ecclesiasticus:
Let us now praise famous men, ...Of course we do honor famous people. But
the text ends strangely:
Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms,
Men renowned for their power, ...
Such as found out musical tunes,
And recited verses in writing:
All these were honoured in their generations,
And some there be, which have no memorial;You don't have to study the history of
technology very long to be haunted by countless
people with no memorial, who nevertheless do live
forever -- anonymous inventors of the wheel, or the
windmill, or the plow.
Who are perished as though they had never been.
Their bodies are buried in peace;
But their name lives for evermore. ...
The people shall tell of their wisdom.
In that wonderful musical about Don Quixote,
Man of La Mancha, the serving girl
Aldonza asks Sancho Panza why Quixote does the
things he does -- why he glamorizes a dirty world.
"Why does he do these things?" she sings; and
Sancho cannot answer.
We eventually ask that question about ourselves.
Why do we undertake the quixotic task of making a
nicer world? You find as many answers as engineers,
of course. Some want fame. Some want wealth. Some
really do want to leave a nicer world behind them.
But so many simply take pleasure in the mental
exercise of it all.
So we create our own memorials. We achieve wealth
by seeking wealth. We become famous by seeking
fame. But look around at the memorials of anonymous
technology that've made a nicer world -- leaps of
the mind that made the automobile differential, the
pencil sharpener, the electric plug, the microwave
oven, the lawn sprinkler ... . I suppose we could
find out who invented each of these things, but we
aren't likely to. Yet they're a finer memorial for
the quixotic, mentally driven people who gave them
to us than wealth or tombstones could ever be.
The great engineering educator Llewelyn Boelter
used to say to new engineering students:
The products of your minds are the most precious
things that you own ... you must do the right thing
It's those products of your minds that
live forever, even if they have no memorial. They're
the most precious things you own -- and they're the
most precious things that you have to give away.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds