Today, a father's legacy to his child. 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.
It's midnight. I'm just back
from Dallas, where a very moving thing happened.
But the story begins on March 18th, 1937. That day,
294 children and teachers died when a natural gas
leak blew up the school in New London, Texas.
A gadget called the Peerless Gas Odorizer came out
right after the explosion. It drips a smelly
mercaptan liquid into gas lines. That makes gas
leaks obvious. They can't sneak up on you the way
one sneaked up on New London.
I was in Dallas to designate the earliest surviving
odorizer as a National Mechanical Engineering
Landmark. It's a childishly simple thing -- perfect
in its simplicity. This one ran for fifty years. It
ran the first 25 years without any maintenance. It
made natural gas safe after the New London
So we made our speeches. Then the son of the
inventor stepped up to receive the plaque. He's
head of the Peerless Company now. All his life the
firm has made odorizers as a sideline. There's very
little profit in them.
But he didn't talk about that. Instead he told one
story. He told how his father jumped in the car and
drove to New London right after the explosion. He
was gone three days. And here the man's voice
caught. I glanced up. He was fighting to keep his
composure. Whatever he had to say was costing him
For three days, his father had dug in the wreckage
along with others. He found a live teacher here --
a not-yet-dead child there. For three days he
sorted through the worst natural gas accident in
After three days the father returned. He got from
his car, went straight to his children, and
embraced them. The father was crying. First time he
ever saw him cry -- last time too.
I learned afterward that the father died while the
son was in college. Years later, he said, when he
had children of his own, he understood that his
father had wept with relief because those weren't
his children in New London on March 18th, 1937.
So the son has kept making these perfect, and
childishly simple, little machines down through his
entire adult life. Machines that make little sense
on his balance sheets.
No wonder that story was so hard for him to tell.
The inventor had, for just a moment, bridged the
terrible silence that lies between father and
child. He built his love for his children into a
machine that would preserve other children for
their tongue-tied fathers. This son wept tonight
because he knew his father had spoken his love --
in the directness, grace, and simplicity of that
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds