Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 357:
SECOND ANNIVERSARY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 357.

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 work.

(Theme music)


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: http://www.google.com/patents?id=oWRSAAAAEBAJ&pg=PP1&dq=gaugler+1944#PPP2,M1

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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