Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 790:
THINGS PEOPLE SAY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 790.

Today, inventive minds play with words. 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.

My producer handed me a book: 1,911 Best Things Anybody Ever Said. Talk about the inventive mind gone amuck! The author, Robert Byrne, begins by quoting God: "Thou shalt not steal."

Then theft begins. From G.K. Chesterton we take, "Music with dinner is an insult to both the cook and the violinist." And from Matthew Green, "Avarice is the sphincter of the heart."

The section on love is long: Goethe says, "If I love you, what business is that of yours?" And Mae West mutters: "I used to be Snow White, but I drifted." Hester Prynne, protagonist of The Scarlet Letter, replies with, "A is for Apple."

Then we read Sheehan song lyrics: "If I don't get a part, for my artificial heart, I'm gonna stop caring for you."

The redoubtable Will Rogers appears often. "I might have gone to West Point," he laments, "but I was too proud to speak to a congressman." Ghandi, once asked what he thought of civilization, answered, "I think it would be a good idea."

George Bernard Shaw and H.L. Menken are highly quotable, but both have mean streaks. Shaw says things like, "All professions are conspiracies against the laity." Menken complains, "Today a dog peed on me. A bad sign."

Some of the items are terribly self-revealing. John D. Rockefeller says "I think the power to make money is a gift from God." Menken says "The cynics are right nine times out of ten." Sugar Ray Robinson tells us, "Hurting people is my business." And Hitler gloats: "What luck for rulers that men do not think!"

My favorite thread in all of these is the creative lurch. It is the way one idea turns unto something else without warning. Like, "I'm on a seafood diet. I see food and I eat it." Or "Contraceptives should be used on every conceivable occasion."

Yogi Berra was master of that lurch: "Toots Shor's restaurant," he complains, "is so crowded nobody goes there anymore."

So what about those creative people who live by the creative lurch? Listen to Hedy Lamarr -- the great beauty who, unbeknownst to most, invented radar frequency hopping. "Any girl can be glamorous;" she tells us acidly, "All you have to do is stand still and look stupid."

Noel Coward understands. "Work," he says, "is much more fun than fun." Thoreau, inventor as well as essayist, knows the creative life is unpredictable. He snaps, "Any fool can make a rule." Oscar Wilde answers: "Only the shallow know themselves."

Edison was no wit, but he understood, better than anyone, that there's always more to it. He simply adds, "We don't know a millionth of one percent about anything."

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

(Theme music)


Byrne, R., 1,911 Best Things Anybody Ever Said. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1988.

The producer of this show, who offered Byrne's book, was Ron Russak, KUHF-FM.


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

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