Today, we invent a machine by becoming part of it.
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.
Modern engineering designers
are up to an odd piece of work. It's called
synectics. The word is Greek. It means binding
different elements, and it fits invention. We
invent when we see relations that other people have
The word synectics was coined by William Gordon in
1961. Gordon points out that putting three people
in a room doesn't mean trippling their effect.
Three people with IQ's of 150 aren't apt to perform
like one person with an IQ of 450. You have to do
more than put people in the same space to make them
do what they're capable of doing.
Invention is subjective, so our three designers
must learn to work together on a subjective level.
To see how this works, we join a designer trying to
improve an airplane altimeter. He opens it up,
looks inside, and begins free-associating
I see a hundred little gears. But the spring
catches my eye. Nothing really matters but that
spring. What does the spring feel like? Being
pushed and pulled is torture. It's too tight in
here! How can I free myself -- get rid of the
gears? Why can't the spring speak right to the
He draws himself into the machine and
abstracts himself from it at the same time. In the
end, he sees how the gears have complicated the
design. He finds his way to a simpler design. He
throws out most of the gears. He uses a visible
marker on the spring to display the altitude
It's one thing to work this way alone. But we need
a to reinvent cooperation to do it in a group. This
is just what Edison managed to do. He relied
heavily on a group that functioned subjectively and
cooperatively at the same time. He worked with
people who'd learned to be vulnerable to new ideas
and to trust each other as they did so.
The Synectics program says that a group not only
needs to make what is strange, familiar. It must
also make what is familiar, strange. A 19th century
south seas islander looked at a three masted, two
funneled, steamer for the first time. He called it
a three pieces bamboo, two pieces puff-puff,
walk-along inside, no can see. Enter his mind
and you see the machine afresh. That's what we mean
by making the familiar strange. And that's the way
we gain new eyes to view a problems.
Modern engineering design is up to an odd business.
We're learning to speak to that wild intelligent
child within us. The stereotype of engineering
detachment is as dead as it was misguided.
Designing is deeply personal. It's powerfully
exciting. And it's time we told our high school
students more about it.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds