Today, what was your name, back in the States? 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.
An old folksong from the
California Gold Rush has been on my mind lately. I
can't shake it. It goes like this:
Oh, what was your name in the States?
Was it Johnson or Thompson or Bates?
Did you murder your wife?
And fly for your life?
Say, what was your name in the States?
We all carry two histories with us. One is the set
of facts about our lives, seen through the
inevitable distortions of memory. The other is the
history we tell about ourselves. More often than
not that history is truthful, but it's never
More important, neither history is the one seen by
those who know us. The history known by our friends
is always slightly askew, because it's weighted
toward who we were. When we relocate, much of that
history begins right now. When pioneers went west,
the clock of their own history was restarted the
moment they settled.
Of course, most of us want friends who know who we
were as well as who we are. I surely do. But now
and then we also need to be reborn. The old West
was a new start for people of every race and walk
of life. Those people, flung so far from all they'd
been, had to reinvent themselves; it was no matter
The old Western towns had no second-generation
families. The whole population was in the same
boat. "What was your name in the States?" was
actually a question you thought twice about before
asking, because it was invasive. It violated
Some years ago I moved to an old established
Midwestern city. When I went to the bank to ask for
a home loan, the elderly banker looked me over and
finally said, "I don't know, son; we get a lot of
vapuh [vapor] through here." Whatever my
name had been in the States, it was not in the
social register. I was a non-person.
Houston, Texas, is quite another matter. It's a
fine begin-again city. We're all minorities. You
hear any language or music, eat any food, walk with
the rich or the poor and not wonder if you have the
right to do so. Who my parents were matters only to
And we're back to the inventive process: It may
sound strange for someone with my interest in
history to quote Whitehead's infamous remark, "A
science which hesitates to forget its founders is
lost." Yet once we set out to invent, that's
precisely what we must do.
Whoever I was back in the States, I must become
someone new if I mean to invent. I must think
thoughts that've not been thought before. We cannot
invent a machine, or a song, or a picture without
partly reinventing ourselves. In fact, you'll find
that a remarkable spate of invention flowed from
those Westward-moving American pioneers.
They were no longer who they'd been. When
everything begins right now, more things
begin than we expect. Cherish old friends, by all
means, but when it comes to invention, every act is
a begin-again act. It really cannot matter
who you were in the States.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Sandburg, C., What Was Your Name in the States?
The American Songbag, New York: Harcourt,
Brace & Company, 1927, pg. 106.
What was your name in the States? (from Harper's Weekly, May 1,
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.