Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1795:
BLANCHE AMES

by John H. Lienhard

Today, meet Blanche Ames. 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.

Blanche Ames was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1878. Her father fought with the Union Army and later became governor of Mississippi. If that seems contradictory -- well, stay with me.

The year after she graduated from Smith College, Blanche married Oakes Ames (same surname, but no kin). Oakes was a Harvard botany instructor from the family of the Ames Shovel Company. All her life, Blanche was a passionately political Republican. And she strongly pressed such women's causes as suffrage and birth control.

She was also a serious inventor. When the Catholic Church managed to ban the dissemination of birth-control information, she wrote pamphlets for home use. They included several birth-control means that she'd invented. (She had four children, by the way.)

Today, the centerpiece of Borderland State Park in Easton, Massachusetts, is the Ames mansion (perhaps "castle" would be a better word). Blanche designed it. She and Oakes contracted to have the mansion built according to a number of unusually difficult design conditions. They grew frustrated as the architect kept failing to meet their requirements. Blanche finally dumped him and hired a cement company that would build to her specifications.

Blanche Ames was an artist first. She did everything from oil portraits to political cartoons. But she's best known as an illustrator of orchids. She illustrated all her husband's studies of orchids, including his great seven-volume treatise on the subject.

And yet, beyond her vast competence ran a freewheeling inventive intensity that went where it chose to go. For example, she designed the water-control system of dams and weirs on the 1,250-acre Borderland Estate. During WW-II, she patented a new kind of fabric wire to dangle from barrage balloons and trap enemy airplanes.

She developed a new system for mixing the colors of paints; she worked on the creation of a disease-resistant turkey; she invented a machine for cutting hexagonal wooden members.

All the time, she pursued her strict conservative politics while she aggressively fought for women's rights. She quit the Birth Control League of Massachusetts (which she'd founded) after they began linking birth control with welfare.

When she was eighty, JFK's book, Profiles in Courage, really got her dander up. She felt that Kennedy had portrayed her father as a carpetbagger. In her father's defense, she wrote a book -- his biography. But she wasn't done yet. She died at the age of almost 92, in 1969. A scant two years earlier, she'd received her last patent, this one for an antipollution toilet.

How to explain such unrelenting creative energy? Her daughter captured her mother in a fine epigram: "For her to have an idea was to act." And that calls to mind Henry Adams' remark that his old friend Teddy Roosevelt "showed the singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter .... He was pure act." Well, Blanche Ames was surely cut from that same bolt of cloth.

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

(Theme music)


I am grateful to Sara McNeil, UH College of Education, for calling my attention to Blanche Ames and for providing the following excellent web sources, which I have used heavily:
Blanche Ames Ames, Artist & Women's Rights Activist, 1878-1969
Ames Mansion
The Orchid Library of Oakes Ames
For images of Blanche and Oakes Ames, as well as Borderlands and examples of Blanche Ames' work, see the websites above. Also, check your library for the many books by and about Blanche Ames.

Orchids at Moody Gardens in Galveston, TX
Orchids at Moody Gardens, Galveston, Texas
(Photo by John Lienhard)


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.