Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 330:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 330.

Today, we do not "yield with a grace to reason." 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.

Robert Frost once wrote six lines that've stayed with me. He said:

Ah, when to the heart of a man
Was it ever less than a treason,
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season.
Frost's words echo in the sad story of Jacob Isaacks. Isaacks was a 70-year-old Rhode Island merchant. In 1790 he demonstrated a crude rig for desalting water. The details aren't clear, but he seems to have invented a secret compound that he mixed with salt water. Distilling the mixture was supposed to take less fuel than distilling pure sea water.

For a new seagoing country, the invention might have been very important. Isaacks talked to George Washington when Washington visited Rhode Island. He seemed interested, and Isaacks, thus encouraged, went to Philadelphia. He told the House of Representatives they could have the process if they would provide, as he put it, "a suitable reward."

The House turned to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, because they knew about his scientific interests. Jefferson was intrigued. He had tests run and found the solution didn't help noticeably. So he wrote a report that ended with the words:

... as far as these experiments justify a conclusion, Mr. Isaack's mixture does not facilitate the separation of seawater from its salt.
In an agonized letter to Jefferson, Isaacks cried: "you must be thoroughly senceable of the injury that report has done me ..."

A few years ago a man came to my office with a new high-efficiency engine. He wanted my opinion but required me to sign a confidentiality agreement. I did. Five minutes later I found that his engine violated the laws of thermodynamics -- it couldn't work. He'd already paid out thousands of dollars to patent lawyers, and he wasn't about to see his invention blown away by physics he neither understood nor believed.

This fellow certainly wasn't trying to fool anyone, and his idea was really pretty imaginative. That was true of Isaacks, too. Both inventors leave us with a strong sense of loss. Yet it's risky to undertake invention. You fail far more often than you succeed. But you must love, and fight for, your potentially wrong ideas -- else they'll never grow into more than whims.

So it is indeed a treason for an inventor to yield with a grace to reason. Our world is what it is because so many people have been willing to fight for ideas. The very fact that Isaacks, like that inventor who came to me, was wrong doesn't damp my respect. I honor them because our world is necessarily built by people with the courage to champion ideas.

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

(Theme music)

Hirschfeld, F., Desalination -- circa 1790. Mechanical Engineering, June 1976, pp. 20-21.

The full text of Robert Frost's Poem is:

Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended.
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.
The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.
And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question "Whither?"
Ah, when to the heart of a man
Was it ever less than a treason,
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season.

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

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