Today, we read a handbook on how to be a rugged
individual. 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 search for new stories
drives me deeper and deeper into the stacks of our
library -- into the dust of seldom-visited shelves.
Yesterday I found an old book -- its yellowed pages
coming unstitched. It hadn't been checked out for
It was Samuel Smiles's book, Self
Help, first published in 1859. This was the
heavily revised 19th printing with lots of new
material. By 1908 Self Help had been
reprinted 56 times, and it wasn't done yet. This
forgotten book was very popular in the age of the
industrial giant and the self-made man.
Smiles wrote biographies of the great engineers
who'd used steam and steel to build that empire.
This book is Smiles's summa
theologica. It would be far out of place in
our current shelves of self-help books. Its full
title is Self Help; with illustrations of
Character, Conduct, and Perseverance. The
frontispiece predictably quotes Shakespeare:
To thine own self be true;Of course that's good advice. It's valid
on a level so elementary that we all too easily
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Smiles goes on to tell one Horatio Alger story
after another. To read his book, you'd soon believe
that every great man of the early 19th century had
been born poor, worked as a tradesman, then shaped
himself into greatness -- without any outside
This particular copy carries an inscription:
"Walter Jennings With the regards of his friend S.
Morehouse December 25. 1871." So, who were Jennings
Walter Jennings, it turns out, was a 13-year-old
schoolboy at Hopkins Grammar School in New Haven,
Connecticut. Sturgis Morehouse had graduated from
Hopkins back in 1848. Maybe he was giving this
Christmas present on behalf of his young son,
Jennings grew up to become a character right out of
Smiles's book: President of the National Fuel Gas
Company, Director of the Manhattan Bank, collector
of expensive art. He died in 1933.
Young Samuel Morehouse became a corporation lawyer
to the big utility companies. He died of overwork
in 1931. Both men, it seems, shaped their lives on
And we're left to weigh the terrible thin line that
divides good thinking from its own grotesque. I'll
read a line from Smiles. It is filled with good,
and filled with dangerous naivete. I leave you to
draw whatever conclusion you might.
Self-discipline and self-control," says Smiles,
"are the beginnings of practical wisdom; and these
must have their root in self-respect. Hope springs
from it -- hope which is the companion of power,
and the mother of success; for whoso hopes strongly
has within him the gift of miracles.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Smiles, S., Self Help; with illustrations of
Character, Conduct, and Perseverance. New
York: Harper & Brothers, Pubs., 1871.
S.C. Morehouse, Noted Lawyer, Dies. New York
Times, Aug. 14, 1931, p. 17.
Jennings, Walter. Dictionary of American
Biography, Under the Auspices of the American
Council of Learned Societies. Vol. 10, New
York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1928-1958.
I am grateful to several people at the UH Library,
especially Martha Steele; and to several archivists
in the New Haven area, especially John Heath at the
Hopkins School, for their help in tracking the
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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