Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 810:
A DEFINING MOMENT

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 810.

Today, your life changes -- in a blink. 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.

Robert Bly spoke last night. What I came away with was not his poetry nor his ideas about a descent into grief followed by reintegration. Those ideas were there, and they were strong. But I was caught by a stray remark -- not his main theme at all.

Bly mentioned the idea of a defining moment. He meant that instant when a small event changes your life. You know what I'm talking about. It's happened to you. We're the sum of such moments. Our lives are shaped by our response to small events.

Here's one: In the '70s, I studied what would happen if a high-pressure hot water line failed in a nuclear reactor. I had to break an experimental pipe open very rapidly. I could do it by tearing a metal diaphragm, or I could blast it open. But diaphragms don't tear fast enough, and explosives are too messy.

I mentioned it to a colleague, Roger Eichhorn. "Hm," he said, "The pressure in that pipe would blow a cap off right now if you could just release it quickly." So a process began.

A student and I designed a titanium plug and a guillotine device to release it. With it we managed to drop the pressure in a pipe at the astonishing rate of 20 million psi/second -- far faster than anyone else ever had. We patented the gadget. The results of that work are now part of the nuclear safety codes.

You and I make lots of calculated changes -- education, marriage, a new job. Our pipe experiment began as one more calculated effort. But no one planned an invention. Invention doesn't work that way. We managed to do something significant this time around just because we let ourselves be changed in a blink.

So where did the idea come from? From Eichhorn? The student? Me? No, creativity is communal. Nothing has any one absolute inventor. We've told the tale of the lonely genius so many times we start believing it. In fact, it isn't true at all.

Look closely at any invention and you'll find some form of community behind it. Invention happens when we're interactive, self-expressive, alert, and willing to enter into change.

Years later I passed Eichhorn in the office one Friday evening. This time he wondered, almost idly, if our college might create some sort of radio spot. Another chance remark! By Monday I'd designed this series. And the day I took up radio my life changed profoundly.

So Bly's comment caught me. Creativity is an instant -- a moment when our lives are defined. It's the moment we touch each other's lives. And our response to that tiny passing event doesn't change just us. It changes the world we live in at the same time.

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

(Theme music)


Robert Bly was a guest of the Houston Men's Council on April 1, 2, and 3, 1993. Friday evening, April 2nd, he read poetry and told stories at Stude Hall on the Rice University campus.

I worked extensively with Roger Eichhorn when we were both on the faculty of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Kentucky between 1967 and 1980. He became Dean of Engineering at the University of Houston in 1982 and made the radio remark in the summer of 1987. The student who first worked on the depressurization experiment was G.S. Borkar. The patent was: J.H. Lienhard and G.S. Borkar, Quick Opening Pressure Release Device and Method. U.S. Patent no. 4,154,361, May 15, 1979. See Episode No. 561 for more on the experiment.



Patent drawing for rapid depressurization device


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

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