Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 665:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 665.

Today, we learn about ourselves in the Inventors Hall of Fame. 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.

The National Inventors Hall of Fame has added a new batch of people every year since it opened in 1973. They began with just one inventor -- Thomas Edison.

Here's a list of the 85 members in 1990. It casts an interesting light on invention. To qualify, you have to hold an American patent. That eliminates James Watt, for example.

Louis Pasteur is there for his work on brewing beer and ale. Herbert Dow isn't honored for founding the Dow Chemical Company, but for his halogen extraction processes.

I've met some of these inventors. I met Louis Alvarez when my wife's piano trio played at his home long ago. Alvarez patented a radio distance and direction indicator. We know him better today for his theory that a meteor impact wiped out the dinosaurs.

Only two inventors are black -- George Washington Carver and Percy Julian. There were no women by 1990. We don't yet find minority inventors like Jan Matzeliger and Gertrude Elion.

We do read most of the great names from our school textbooks -- Bell, Wright, Marconi, and Morse. History is just starting to tell us how self-serving a few of those people were -- Eli Whitney and Cyrus McCormick, for example.

We omit inventors who didn't patent their invention. John Atanasoff gave us the digital computer and changed history. Someone else held the patent.

Henry Ford might've been left out that way. But he did patent a transmission mechanism. That's how the inventor of modern mass production gets into the Hall of Fame.

Enrico Fermi is there because he once patented a reactor. I suppose it would take a real grinch to object to Ford's and Fermi's marginal presence among the great inventors.

The ones I'm happiest to see honored are unsung inventors who've changed our lives. Here's Wallace Carothers. He holds patents for diamine-dicarboxylic acid salts. Carothers lived only 41 years. But his work gave us neoprene, synthetic rubber, and nylon.

If you're not an engineer yourself, you may never've heard of the German engineer Nicolaus Otto. He invented the four-stroke engine cycle in 1861. Most of our automobiles are still powered by engines that use that cycle.

This Hall of Fame is a strange thing. It's flawed. But its flaws tell us as much about invention as its rightness does. It is, after all, in the process of winnowing greatness that we celebrate and define what we hope to find in ourselves.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

The National Inventors Hall of Fame is a brochure published by the National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation, Inc., 1990. The address is Room 1D01, Crystal Plaza 3, 2021 Jefferson Davis Highway, Arlington, Virginia 22202.

See Episode 666 for more on Wallace Carothers.

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

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