Today, we Freeze-dry our past. 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.
On the morning of June 9th, 2001,
we in Houston awoke to see our city awash in water. Our
worst-ever flood had wrought havoc. Especially hard hit
were the medical center, the Houston Symphony, and our
own University. And no one on campus fared worse than our
law library, located on two underground floors.
Our most precious law books and papers had occupied
twenty-five thousand square feet in the lower basement.
Water filled that space all the way to the ceiling. By
the time it was drained, the books were little more than
Very few items could be salvaged from that underground
treasure-house. The microfiche and microfilm holdings
needed little more than a good washing in distilled
water. But the most precious items down in the muck were
the papers of Justice John R. Brown.
Brown had been the Chief Judge for the Fifth Circuit
Court between 1967 and 1979. During those years the Fifth
Circuit had been a vast region reaching all the way from
Florida to Texas. Brown emerged as a legal architect of
desegregation throughout the south. This was one set of
papers we could not lose.
Enter now former law student Don Hartsell. Hartsell had
first taken up entrepreneurial law. Then he'd been
enchanted by the potential for new technologies. He
formed the Solex Environmental Systems Company. Their
business was dehumidification technology.
So his people came in -- first to drain and dehumidify
the library. Then they turned their focus upon those John
R. Brown papers. They use a technique called
freeze-drying (though that term only captures part of a
subtle process.) You see, at a low enough pressure --
below one one-hundred-and-sixtieth of atmospheric
pressure -- water can't exist; you can have only ice or
They place the wet papers on trays in a large vacuum
chamber. Then they drop the pressure until the water all
freezes. That halts any bacterial action or mold growth
that would've occurred in water. Now they can add heat to
the papers while they keep the pressure low. As the ice
is heated, it holds the temperature low while it
sublimates back into steam and is drawn out by the vacuum
pump. The ice vanishes just the way snow vanishes on a
cold but sunny January day in Minnesota.
Today, I read some of those rescued John R. Brown papers.
The texture of the paper was oddly changed, but the story
was there -- a fragment of our long tortuous journey away
from the evils of segregation. What a strange confluence
of counterintuitive means for ridding our lives of junk!
Here I'd touched the cool dry legal process by which we
finished a task that human passions alone could not
finish. Here, too, lay the result of heating ice until
it could finally blow away -- until we could be
done with it as well.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
I am grateful to Jon Schultz and Helen Boyce of the UH Law
Library, and to Don Hartsell, President of Solex, for their