Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2187:
LAST SURVIVORS

by John H. Lienhard

Today, the last survivors. 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.

I was given a curious book, and it sets me to thinking about the afterimage of the past in our lives. It's Robert Ernest Hubbard's Last Survivors. I don't suppose you've been possessed by a burning need to know who was the last living person who'd known Vincent van Gogh. But now that I've raised the question, don't you find yourself wondering? That's the sort of thing we learn here.

To see how such factoids might be useful, consider this thread of connection: Until recently, I knew a lot about Thomas Jefferson, but I had little subjective understanding of how his life and my own are connected across time. Then I realized: Jefferson's and my great-grandpa's lives overlapped by four years.

And Great-grandpa made the trek across Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase only a few decades later. Like Lewis and Clark, he even started out from St. Louis. Suddenly, real fabric connected me with Jefferson's world. History took on a new complexion.

Take a question like, "Who was the last survivor of Custer's Battle of Little Big Horn?" But there were no survivors, one might say. Well, of course there were. Custer had divided his forces into three parts and only his part was slaughtered. Lt. Charles Varnum, who rode with Major Reno, lived another sixty years. I was in first grade when he died.

Little Big Horn sculpture
Little Big Horn Sculpture (from Wikipedia)

And don't forget Indians defending their territory. Hubbard gives us Dewey Beard, a Lakota Sioux who died in 1955. That was fourteen years after Errol Flynn Played Custer in the famous historical travesty, They Died With Their Boots On. Another four years and Beard would've outlived Flynn himself.

The time spans represented by some of these people is astonishing. The last Alamo survivor wasn't one of Santa Ana's men, He was Alejo Peréz Jr. who'd been inside the fort. Then a one-year-old babe in arms, he lived 'til 1918.

The Last Civil War veteran died in 1956, but more startling is the last Civil War widow. Alberta Martin died in 2003. How could that be, you ask? Well, she was 21, and a widowed mother, when she made her marriage of convenience to 82-year-old Civil War veteran William Jasper Martin. When Martin died four years later, the now-twice widowed Alberta married his grandson.

So many last survivors -- of the Titanic, the Johnstown Flood, the Bounty -- of marriage to Henry VIII. Oh yes, the last surviving person who knew van Gogh was Jeanne Calment of Arles. At 122, she was the oldest living person on Earth when she died in 1997.

We might view this book as just one more long list. But it helps me catch the continuity of life -- to link then with now. It leaves me asking myself, "Who'll be the last survivor to've known any of you, listening to me now?" Will that person see the year 2200, or our colony near Alpha Centauri? We're linked across time, more than we first think. And the wonder of that leaves me smiling.

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

(Theme music)


R. E. Hubbard, Last Survivors. (San Diego, CA: Aventine Press, 2005).

Jeanne Calment Jeanne Calment at 119, courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeanne_Calment


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.