Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 169:
TRIVIA

by John H. H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 169.

Today, some odds and ends that tell us something. 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 seen TV episodes made from out-takes of earlier shows. I suppose they reflect a kind of frustration. There's so much good stuff you can't use. But you can't just leave it lying on the cutting-room floor, either. Well, I have the same problem. I'll show you what I mean with three random examples.

The first illustrates the way an inventive mind finds possibility in commonplace events. Velcro, it seems, was invented because someone analyzed the way cockle-burrs stuck to his trousers.

The second is similar. It's about how steam-engine-valving was first automated. A bright young boy, switching Newcomen-engine valves, found he could sleep on the job if he just tied the valve-cords to a moving cross-beam.

The third is an eccentric-scientist story. The great English experimenter James Prescott Joule was seen at a waterfall near Mt. Chamonix on his honeymoon -- carrying a huge thermometer. He was trying to show that the water was warmed by its fall.

Stories like this follow inventive people around, because their minds go where they aren't expected to go. Of course, that can involve a good deal of mischief. I knew an off-the-wall electrical engineer who mounted a huge set of high-fidelity loudspeakers under his car's hood. Then he drove down the highway, playing his own superb recording of an oncoming steam locomotive moving under full power. I'm told he laughed fiendishly as drivers in front of him scuttled off onto the shoulder.

Then we also tell stories that reduce brilliant people to human size. My wife had a violin teacher who'd played string quartets with Einstein. At one point he forgot himself and shouted, "Albert, for God's sake! Didn't you ever learn to count?"

Absent-minded-professor stories are like that. People at MIT told me this one about Norbert Wiener, the father of modern control theory. He got off the bus one evening, wrapped in thought, and wandered into his neighborhood. He forgot which house was his, so he stopped a child playing in the street. "Little girl," he asked, "Which house do the Wieners live in?" She smiled and answered, "Oh Daddy, we live across the street."

Whether or not that one's true, it says something about the thinker's need to find his own space. Henry Ford understood that need. An efficiency expert once told him he'd repeatedly seen a fellow down the hall sitting back 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."

Well, creative people do have ways to shut out distraction and to focus their minds. And it's in their nature to cast the obvious world into new forms. It isn't that stories like these are typical. But looking deeply into your mind, and finding a way to make an unexpected jump, is what the creative process is all about.

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

(Theme music)


This episode has been completely rewritten as Episode 1768.

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

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