Today, I receive a gift. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
My father did a remarkable
thing in 1939. We lived in St. Paul. My uncle was a
doctor at the Mayo clinic, ninety miles south. One
day we drove down for a visit. My father was
impulsive by nature. This day, on a lark, he said,
"How would you like to fly back?"
The ticket cost nine dollars -- a small fortune
before WW-II. I was stunned by the magnitude of the
gift. I'd dreamt of flying since my first memory of
thought. Now it was really going to happen. He sent
me off into the sky with a streetcar token to get
home and a nickel for a phone call -- just in case.
He sent me off in that great old workhorse, the
Douglas DC-3. There I gained my first vision of
earth falling away. That's strong stuff, after
you've imagined it for so long.
Years later I learned about another gift, from
another father. One evening in 1874 a Bishop of the
United Brethren Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa,
brought a toy helicopter home to his two youngest
sons. That was also a gift he could ill afford on
his $1000-a-year salary. The Bishop's name was
Milton Wright. His two sons were Orville and
Oddly enough, we didn't have real helicopters until
long after those two brothers gave us the airplane.
In fact, the first helicopter flew the same year I
did. Orville Wright was still very much alive in
1939. And, like him, I wanted to build airplanes
when I grew up.
By 1951 I had both my degree and a job with Boeing
Aircraft. Boeing put me to work drafting brackets
for the B-52 bomber. That somehow fell short of
dreams shaped by the buoyancy of DC-3s, crop
dusters, and skywriters. My dream of flight was wed
to the lightness of being, not to the weight of
bombs. So I gave up Boeing. I set out to find new
And I found them. My father's gift had done its
work in my life. It told me that the unexpected can
happen. It told me that dreams can be realized, but
that they also grow and change.
His impulsive gift showed me that we have both the
power and the obligation to enrich each other's
lives, as he enriched mine -- as Bishop Wright
enriched the lives of his two sons -- and as
Orville and Wilbur finally enriched all of us.
That gift opened my eyes to surprise. That's what
the act of invention is. Invention is the gift of
surprise. It is the evolution of the dream. And it
waits for any of us able to open our eyes -- and
able to see the gift.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds