Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 819: PANVENTION

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 819.

Today, we invent a new word. 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.

Since I started this series, people have been showing me what they themselves have created. Sometimes they want publicity for an idea. More often it's a straightforward wish to share what they've seen. Invention is self-expression. Maybe I should be able to understand what they've done.

Last week a friend -- a linguist by training -- stopped me. "John, let me show you something." It was a circular slide rule. "I made this twenty years ago," he said. Of course, that was just before we all had pocket calculators.

He'd solved a grocery store pricing problem. Suppose a nine-ounce bottle of hair shampoo costs $1.70, and a thirteen-ounce bottle costs $2.85. Which is the better buy?

With his slide rule, you can calculate the first unit price, 19 cents an ounce, and then place a marker. When you calculate the second unit price of 22 cents, the device compares the two numbers. You can see which is cheaper. He'd created a slide rule with one memory unit.

The motive wasn't profit or a patent. Once he'd worked it out, he was done. It was creative fun. It was also very clever.

So invention goes on all around us -- far more than people freely admit. We talk too much about the great inventors. Watt, Edison, and Bell invented much, and they invented well. But it took far more than they gave us to shape our world.

Creativity -- your creativity -- is omnipresent. It's the structural glue that makes the world run. I take stock here on campus. Colleagues invent new teaching ideas. Librarians invent new search engines. Every experimental researcher invents equipment all the time. Our students invent machines in their design classes. Our writers invent poems.

Invention isn't reserved for a unique breed of people at all. Rather, it's what we must all manage to do -- every day -- if we mean to be fully functional citizens. Invention is there every time you look closely at the person next to you.

That slide rule wasn't wonderful for its uniqueness but rather for symbolizing what we're all capable of. If my linguist friend can invent a slide rule, I can invent a word. I'll invent the word "panvention" -- a noun made by combining the Greek term pan, which means all of us, with the familiar word invention.

Panvention is the ever-present process of invention as it occurs in all walks of life and is practiced by all people. Panvention is essential to every level of human improvement. You've done far more panvention than you remember. And I'm here today just to remind you -- of all you've done.

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

(Theme music)


I'm grateful to Dr. Jeff Fadell, UH Library, for showing me his circular slide rule. I'm also grateful to five or six other people who've exposed their creative output (and themselves) to me this week alone.




J.E. Fadell's One-of-a-Kind Pricing Slide Rule


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

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