by John H. Lienhard
Click here for audio of Episode 561.
Today, engineers face things that go bump in the
night. 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.
William Wordsworth writes
about a creative person's dreams in language that
any engineer will recognize. He says,
Huge and mighty forms that do not liveOur ideas do haunt us that way while we
give birth to them.
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.
So much rides on the engines that march out of our
ingenuity. If our concept fails, we suffer
humiliation. If the bridge fails, children die. We
can create ugliness instead of beauty.
Herbert Hoover was an engineering giant before he
became president. He picked up on Wordsworth's
theme. Listen as he writes about the troubles that
beset an engineer's dreams:
If his works [fail] he is damned. That is the
phantasmagoria that haunts his night and dogs his
days. . . . He wakes in the night in a cold sweat
and puts something on paper that looks silly in the
morning. All day he shivers at the thought of the
bugs [that] inevitably appear to jolt its smooth
I know that theme well. I do a lot with
high pressure water and steam. I've designed many
Several years ago, I pressurized water to 2600 psi
and heated it over 600 degrees. Then I broke the
pipe open in a 10,000th of a second to simulate a
nuclear accident. Eventually the experiment worked.
When it did, the controlled, soul-satisfying
explosion jolted people in the next building.
But I know what it is to wake at 4:00 AM imagining
that I've crippled a student by some oversight in
my design. I know what is to waken, thinking about
the ancient Code of Hammurabi. It said that if a
building fell and killed the owner's son, then the
architect's son must also die.
This series often celebrates the creative flash
without saying enough about the other side of that
coin. Sure, the creative act does occur in a flash.
But more often than not, that flash is the
consummation of weeks of nose-to-the-grindstone
agony -- even despair.
Charles Ellis transformed the first ugly design of
the Golden Gate Bridge into the Bridge we know
today. We read about how he did it:
. . . he plunged back into his calculations for the
bridge towers, devoting weeks, then months, to the
sweet, absorbing agony of revision.
That sweet absorbing agony is just where
the creative leap so often takes flight. It certainly
did in this case. I look at those awful first
drawings of the Golden Gate Bridge. Then I compare
them with the glory that stands today. It really had
to take pain, love, and many, many troubled dreams to
turn lead into such bright burnished gold as that.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Petroski, H., Good Drawings and Bad Dreams.
American Scientist, March-April 1991,
Petroski refers to van der Zee's account of Ellis's
work revising Joseph Strauss's original Golden Gate
Bridge design. My super-rapid depressurization
experiment is described in
J.H. Lienhard and G.S. Borkar, Quick Opening
Pressure Release Device and Method. U.S.
Patent no. 4,154,361. May 15, 1979.
J.H. Lienhard, Md. Alamgir, and M. Trela, Early
Response of Hot Water to Sudden Release from High
Pressure. J. Heat Transfer, Vol. 100,
No. 3, 1978, pp. 473-9.
Md. Alamgir, C.Y. Kan, and J.H. Lienhard, An
Experimental Study of the Rapid Depressurization of
Hot Water. J. Heat Transfer, Vol. 102,
No. 2, 1979, pp. 433-8.
Md. Alamgir, C.Y. Kan, and J.H. Lienhard, Early
Response of Pressurized Hot Water in a Pipe, to a
Sudden Break. EPRI Report. NP-1867,
Project 687-1, June 1981.
From Poems of Imagination and
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Patent drawing for rapid depressurization
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