Today, thoughts on fame and fortune. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Throughout this series we've
talked about the error of assigning priority.
Credit Bell with inventing the telephone, and we
overlook all the inventors he built upon: Bourseul, Reis, Gray -- all names
we've largely forgotten. Great inventions are
always the gift of many people, not just one.
Perhaps we write about science and technology the
way we do because we so want to tap into the old
hero mythologies. A wonderful passage in the
Book of Ecclesiasticus casts some light on
this. It begins,
Let us now praise famous men, ...
Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms,
Men renowned for their power, ...
Such as found out musical tunes,
And recited verses in writing:
All these were honoured in their
But then that same passage moves on to a far more
realistic, and even poignant, understanding of
invention. It goes on to say,
And some there be, which have no memorial;
Who are perished as though they had never been.
Their bodies are buried in peace;
But their name lives for evermore. ...
The people shall tell of their wisdom.
We can't study the history of technology long
before we find ourselves haunted by countless
people with no memorial who do, nevertheless, live
forever -- anonymous inventors of the wheel, the
windmill, the plow.
The simple fact is, you and I create our own
memorials. If wealth is my objective, then wealth
is my memorial. If fame is my objective, fame may
well be all I get. But look around at the memorials
of anonymous technologies that made a better world
-- leaps of the mind that made the differential
gear, the pencil sharpener, the electric plug, the
drop-leaf table, the lawn sprinkler.
If we tried to determine who invented each of these
things, we'd find the same confusion of precursor
contributions. Yet these anonymous and infinitely
helpful devices make finer memorials for the many
quixotic, mentally-driven people who gave them to
us than wealth or tombstones ever could.
The great engineering educator Llewelyn Boelter would tell his
new students, "The products of your minds are the
most precious things that you own ... you must do
the right thing with them."
If anything lives forever, it is those products of
our minds, with or without any memorial. They are
the most precious things we own. More than that,
they are the most glorious things we have to give
Take the time to trace any major invention back
until it gradually fades into anonymity. In the
end, you'll always find yourself telling of the
wisdom of people whose "bodies are buried in peace"
and who "have no memorial" -- steamboat inventors
before Fulton, light-bulb inventors before Edison
-- mousetrap inventors before even you or me.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds