Today, we inhale the not-so-sweet smell of real
creativity. 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.
It was three-fifteen, March
18th, 1937. The high school at New London, Texas,
was about to let out for a school holiday. Just
then, without warning, the school blew up.
Three hundred people died that awful day. A
20-year-old United Press reporter named Walter
Cronkite came in from Dallas. Sixty years after he
walked among the mangled bodies, he still said it
was the worst civilian tragedy he'd ever covered.
The explosion was the result of an undetected
natural gas leak. It galvanized the public's fear
Now, as the last survivors of that blast grow old,
the American Society of Mechanical Engineers is
designating a strange little device in Dallas as a
National Landmark. It looks like the robot R2D2.
It's a bullet-shaped metallic dome, a few feet
tall. It sits next to a storage tank.
The small dome and the big tank are alone in a
field. They're nothing you want to get close to.
They both stink like a barrel of frightened skunks.
The little device is actually called a robot. It's
the first kind of gas odorizer. It came out in
1938, just after that terrible explosion rent the
sky and rent the hearts, of New London. This one
was installed in 1942. It ran until 1991.
It adds two pounds of vile-smelling liquid to every
million cubic feet of natural gas. It treats a half
million cubic feet an hour. You see, natural gas is
odorless. You can't tell when it leaks into your
room. So a perfectly brilliant inventor said, "Ok,
then let's give it an odor so we'll know it's
Today, if you smell gas, you call the repair
people. Of course, it isn't really gas you smell at
all. You smell one of the chemicals we use to give
even a small amount of gas a nasty pungent odor.
The odorizer strikes me as the most ingenious sort
of invention. It attacks the problem of safety from
an unexpected side. Instead of trying to eliminate
gas leakage, which would be impossible, it makes
leakage evident when it occurs.
We don't worry much about natural gas explosions
today. This funny, foul-smelling little engine of
someone's ingenuity has delivered us from the
lurking terror of a gas explosion.
Survivors of the New London blast carried the scars
of that horror all their lives. For most of us,
it's a forgotten horror. That's because someone
turned the problem inside out and attacked it from
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds