Today, let us pick up some loose ends. 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.
You've all seen TV programs
of comic outtakes from earlier shows. I suppose
they reflect frustration -- so much good stuff you
can't use but can't just leave lying on the
cutting-room floor, either. I have the same
problem. So many ideas just aren't enough for a
full program! I'll give you some examples.
A doctor writes to me about the Bible verse where
Esau returns from the hunt so faint that he sells
his birthright to get some of Jacob's red pottage.
He points out that Esau was not hungry but
faint -- likely suffering from
hyponatremia, a lack of sodium in the
blood. Jacob's pottage was probably red from the
salt common in the region. Genesis banned hunters
from consuming salt-rich blood (as Massai hunters
regularly do) to prevent hyponatremia.
So you see my problem: I have a fascinating tidbit,
but not enough context either to verify it or to
make a program of it. Take another such tidbit. Did
you know how steam-engine-valving was first
automated? A bright young boy, switching
Newcomen-engine valves back in 1712, found that he
could sleep on the job if he just tied the
valve-cords to a moving cross-beam.
There's no end of eccentric-scientist stories, all
too brief to use. Take the one about Lord Kelvin,
vacationing in the alps. He finds the
terribly-focused scientist James Prescott Joule,
who's on his honeymoon, at the base of a waterfall
near Mount Chamonix. Joule carries a huge
thermometer while his bride waits in a carriage
above. He's trying to learn whether the water is
warmed by the energy given up during its long fall.
Stories like that one follow inventive people
around because their minds don't go where we expect
them to go. Of course, that can lead to mischief. I
knew an off-the-wall electrical engineer who
mounted a huge set of loudspeakers under his car's
hood. Then he drove down the road, playing his own
superb recording of an oncoming steam locomotive
moving under full power. He laughed fiendishly as
he told of terrified drivers lurching into the
Most of these unused fragments have the same
anecdotal texture as a joke. Henry Ford told of an
efficiency expert who complained about a fellow
down the hall, sitting with his feet on the desk.
Ford replied, "That man once had an idea that saved
me a million dollars. When he got it, his feet were
right where they are now."
But what idea? What employee? So many incomplete
stories, so much to tease us! Sometimes we just
don't have what Paul Harvey calls "the rest of the
story." We have only the suggestive beginning. Did
you know that Enrico Caruso was a fine cartoonist
-- that John Adams boasted about the quality of the
manure on his farm?
I shudder every time I find one more of these
fragments: too little to tell, too troublesome to
verify, too delightful to ignore. Perhaps the only
thing to do with these outtakes is to savor them --
and then make up the rest of the story ourselves.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
This is a greatly revised version of Episode 169.
I'm grateful to pediatric hematologist Dr. Avner
Ramu for pointing out the possible ramifications of
the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.