Today, inventive minds play with words. 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.
My producer handed me a
book: 1,911 Best Things Anybody Ever
Said. Talk about the inventive mind gone
amuck! The author, Robert Byrne, begins by quoting
God: "Thou shalt not steal."
Then theft begins. From G.K. Chesterton we take,
"Music with dinner is an insult to both the cook
and the violinist." And from Matthew Green,
"Avarice is the sphincter of the heart."
The section on love is long: Goethe says, "If I
love you, what business is that of yours?" And Mae
West mutters: "I used to be Snow White, but I
drifted." Hester Prynne, protagonist of The
Scarlet Letter, replies with, "A is for
Then we read Sheehan song lyrics: "If I don't get a
part, for my artificial heart, I'm gonna stop
caring for you."
The redoubtable Will Rogers appears often. "I might
have gone to West Point," he laments, "but I was
too proud to speak to a congressman." Ghandi, once
asked what he thought of civilization, answered, "I
think it would be a good idea."
George Bernard Shaw and H.L. Menken are highly
quotable, but both have mean streaks. Shaw says
things like, "All professions are conspiracies
against the laity." Menken complains, "Today a dog
peed on me. A bad sign."
Some of the items are terribly self-revealing. John
D. Rockefeller says "I think the power to make
money is a gift from God." Menken says "The cynics
are right nine times out of ten." Sugar Ray
Robinson tells us, "Hurting people is my business."
And Hitler gloats: "What luck for rulers that men
do not think!"
My favorite thread in all of these is the creative
lurch. It is the way one idea turns unto something
else without warning. Like, "I'm on a seafood diet.
I see food and I eat it." Or "Contraceptives should
be used on every conceivable occasion."
Yogi Berra was master of that lurch: "Toots Shor's
restaurant," he complains, "is so crowded nobody
goes there anymore."
So what about those creative people who live by the
creative lurch? Listen to Hedy Lamarr -- the great
beauty who, unbeknownst to most, invented radar
frequency hopping. "Any girl can be glamorous;" she
tells us acidly, "All you have to do is stand still
and look stupid."
Noel Coward understands. "Work," he says, "is much
more fun than fun." Thoreau, inventor as well as
essayist, knows the creative life is unpredictable.
He snaps, "Any fool can make a rule." Oscar Wilde
answers: "Only the shallow know themselves."
Edison was no wit, but he understood, better than
anyone, that there's always more to it. He simply
adds, "We don't know a millionth of one percent
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds