Today, we dodge invention. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
This is my
seventeen-hundredth program. That comes to about
nine-hundred-thousand carefully-chosen words. I
should've developed some confidence with language
by now. But I can grow only increasingly puzzled by
the strange medium of words.
Joan Rivers set me to thinking about the way we
force language to protect us from action as she
interviewed rich and famous women entering the
Oscars ceremony. She stopped each dazzling woman to
ask, "Who are you wearing?" Think of the
possibilities: A woman in leather pants replies,
"Why, my dear, I'm wearing Elsie the Cow."
Rivers' circumlocution dodged any reference to
action. "Who designed your dress?" would require us
to refer directly to action by a designer. But
action is strangely déclassé.
B is severely depressed. A says, "B, you need to
talk to someone." Is A not somebody? For A
to admit that she's suggesting the actions of a
psychiatrist or a counselor is unacceptable.
Think about the phrase "God bless," so widely used
by politicians and the homeless. The trick is to be
aligned with God without any messy commitment. We
get around it by failing to identify the blessee.
If we said, "God bless you," or, "God bless us one
and all," we'd lose the secular neutrality of "God
Nowhere do we so erase the direct action as we do
when we use the word innovation. To
innovate literally means to add something new to
what has already been invented. And that brings us
to invention. Is invention too grand, or too
personal, to be voiced?
Two thoughts here: First, I cannot think of any
invention that was made purely ab initio.
We never pull invention out of completely empty
air. In that sense, there is only innovation, and
invention is just a daydream.
On the other hand, you yourself have conceived
utterly new ideas out of your imagination. The fact
that you've drawn upon others takes nothing away
from your originality. Think about the ancient
inventor who first let wagon wheels rotate freely
on a fixed axis instead of anchoring them to a
rotating axle. That way wheels could turn at
different speeds as they went around a corner.
Since wagons and wheels were already there, was
that person an innovator or an inventor? Well, the
idea was surely born in the fiery brilliance of one
mind. No matter that the mind worked in concert
with many other minds; the fixed axle was
So back to "Who are you wearing?" and to "God
bless." We're in trouble if action isn't personal.
The word invention knifes into some deeply
private place. I suspect that when Shakespeare said
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
even he was distancing himself from those fiery
forces. Call your own invention by some lesser name
if you must, just as long as you go ahead and
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.