Today, we learn about invention from a preacher.
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.
I went to a special lecture
on the Berkeley Campus in 1956. The speaker was a
young Baptist minister, hardly older than I. He was
27, and he'd just taken over the Dexter Street
Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He was
scholarly and low-key. He spoke on the theoretical
and theological roots of the Civil Rights Movement.
But this man also knew his subject in practical
terms. He'd recently riveted public attention by
organizing a boycott of the segregated buses in
Montgomery. He was, of course, Martin Luther King,
King gave us all a lesson in teaching. Using the
tools of reason, literature, and history, he took
us to the heart and meaning of non-violent protest.
It was a disciplined performance. He didn't let his
mission deflect him from primary Christian
imperatives. I still hear him saying to us,
Our aim is as much to deliver the white man from
the wrongs of segregation, as it is to deliver the
black man. If we forget that, then we've
And we knew he meant it.
Our pursuit of the inventive mind finally brings us
to this strange warrior who wielded the weapons of
peace. King had the same quality of intellectual
detachment as a theoretical physicist. But he also
had a genius for communication. He used that genius
to wed abstract thought to reality. Like the great
engineers, King molded subtle ideas into a better
Seven years later, King gathered a quarter-million
people before the Washington monument to tell them
he had a dream. In that uncanny oration he revealed
the mystic part of the mind that did so much for
America. Invention is a three-part process. The
inventor must dream, he must think, and he must
execute, King did all three. He harnessed his dream
of racial harmony to powerful abstract and ethical
engines. Then his dream rode those engines into a
world that was, for the most part, delighted and
stunned by what he'd forged.
It's dangerously easy to make Martin Luther King,
Jr., into an icon -- to remember only the force of
his oratory -- to remember his mission and forget
his means. When I fall into that error I go back to
that young intellectual at Berkeley. I remember him
laying out left-brain means for realizing a
right-brain dream. I remember this young man
educating the elders in the temple. I still hear
him explaining the journey that eventually took him
only to the near side of his Jordan River. I
remember that this dream-driven man of action was
also a great intellectual of our times.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
This episode was rewritten as Episode 3157 in 2018.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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