Today, we observe the second anniversary of
The Engines of Our Ingenuity. 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.
We finished the second year
of this program on January 3rd, 1990. It's time to
ask what we've learned from it. I asked this
question once before -- after the first three
months. By then we'd found the real mothers of
invention were freedom and simplicity. But we also
saw that inventors live with so much failure -- at
least in worldly terms.
For two years we've watched inventors reinforcing
the importance of freedom and simplicity. But the
failure theme preys on my mind. Listeners may well
ask how I can take delight in anything that leads
to failure so often. What's the counterbalance?
The counterbalance, of course, is pleasure. If
seminal invention fails at first, it fails only
against the most conventional measures of success.
Any truly new creation of our minds has to fight
for life in a world that doesn't expect it. The
freest person among us resists ideas from outside
our experience. But we're all delighted by a
surprise, once we see it for what it is.
In another sense, an inventor cannot fail. The
engines of his mind may not yield wealth and fame,
but if that's what he's after, he's cooked before
he starts. He's no better off than the lawyer or
doctor who's in it for money and fame.
The reward for creating a new thing is the process
itself. There's no pleasure quite like it. Last
year, two different men said to me, "I invented the
heat pipe." Neither had ever heard of the other's
work. And each really did invent the heat pipe. One
described it in rudimentary form as early as 1937.
The other created the modern form in 1962. Neither
has profited from his invention. Each planted the
seed. Each added to the collective unconscious of
the technical community.
More important, each one can look at me, late in
his life, and say, "I invented an engine of my own
ingenuity, and now it serves the whole world." Even
more important: each has enjoyed the exquisite
pleasure of creating the device out of the blue sky
of his own mind. And each is content for having
done so. When I tell one about the other, I do not
find anger or jealousy. I find only interest.
The surest thing I learned in the first two years
was that inventors fail to succeed only when they
accept useless definitions of success. I learned
that we absolutely rely on people whom we usually
fail to honor or pay. We're poorer for that. But
the inventor who finds the way to his creative
center finds freedom and exhilaration. He gains far
more from that than anything we have to offer.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Schmitt, O.H., Vapor-Cooled Electrodes. The
Review of Scientific Instruments, Vol. 8, No.
4, 1937, p. 131.
Trefethen, L.M., On the Surface Tension Pumping of
Liquids, or, A Possible Role of the Candle Wick in
Space Exploration. Report No. 61SD114.
Missile and Space Vehicle Dept., General Electric
Co., Feb. 1962.
I did this episode back in 1989. Recently (August, 2007) Horacio Luis Varela
pointed out a heat pipe patent from 1944 -- between Schmitt and Trefethen:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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