Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1191:
CHRISTMAS EVE, 1996

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1191.

Today, thoughts on hope, expectation, and an overheard conversation. 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.

"What do you think of when I say Christmas?" was the question. "I think of soft lights and pretty music, but I don't have all that many happy memories of Christmas," came the answer. "But you like Christmas. You still like to celebrate it." "Oh yes, I do." "Well, why?" "Maybe it's because Christmas always brings me hope."

Suddenly I saw a kernel of logic forming behind the seeming illogic of Christmas. Christmas had started reminding me of Charlie Brown trusting Lucy not to pull the football away just before he kicks it. Every fall, Charlie comes back. Every fall, Lucy pulls the football away at the last second and Charlie spins off balance to land on his head. And every fall, Charlie still comes back. We likewise come back every Christmas looking for something that so often seems not to be there.

We may think Charlie Brown's hope and his expectation are the same thing, but they're not. Those two things often oppose each another. Think about inventors: inventors rearrange the contents, not only of the known universe, but of that other universe inside the mind as well. Within that torturous process, good inventors expect failure after failure. They expect Lucy to snatch the ball away. But creative people also entertain ongoing hope. A hundred failures for one rousing success isn't so bad. The composer Leoncavallo wrote a lot of music. Who knows a line of it beyond I Pagliacci? Who needs to know more!

Invention doesn't mean going to the lab, or the computer, confident of success. Quite the contrary! It means going to work with confidence that rides through all those failures. It means holding the hope of success. When James Watt went into a long period of failure, his wife wrote to him, "If it will not do, something else will. Never despair." Poet Witter Bynner recalls what Ben Franklin said when he was asked what good an invention was. Bynner draws the Christ Child into Franklin's answer:

What's the use of a new-born child?...
to raise the dead heart? -- to set wild the fettered hope.

In this series we've met scores of inventors who worked on inventions that didn't pan out. Driven by their wild hopes, they often found their contentment as they did no more than lay ground for others. Success, by itself, is seldom that kind to us.

This Christmas Eve of 1996, like all Christmases, will tease us with expectations that cannot be met. Some of us expect from the start to be disappointed. But others, like the person I overheard in that conversation, find a renewal of hope in the season.

They're the ones who see realistically. Christmas never was about expecting happiness. It always has been about tapping into an enduring hope -- a hope that can sustain us long after trees are burned, wrappings hauled away, and imperfect gifts forgotten.

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

(Theme music)



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

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