Today, who did what by when? 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.
Here's a neat little book by Andrew Postman: There's Always Time for Greatness: Who Did What When From Ages 1 to 100. It marches through the years, giving us exemplars at each age. Brooke Shields was named the Ivory Snow Baby at the age of one. The present Dalai Lama was chosen when he was two. Tiger Woods shot 48 on a nine-hole course when he was three.
The years of childhood and early teens are filled with musical prodigies, people named as monarchs, and various movie actors. Country-Western singer Loretta Lynn married at the age of thirteen.
Serious athletic accomplishment begins in the mid-to-late teens. At nineteen, Bill Gates became the cofounder of Microsoft, and history shifted when nineteen-year-old Adolph Hitler was denied entry into the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts.
People begin making major scientific achievements in their early twenties. Leakey identified the Australopithecus Africanus skull at twenty-one, and Darwin embarked on the voyage of the Beagle at twenty-two. Newton began work on the Principia at twenty-three.
Of course, most human accomplishment occurs between the late twenties and around seventy. But let's jump ahead, skipping over much fine work, to see what happens in our late years:
At seventy-four, Einstein gave us his unified field theory, and Monet began his paintings of water lilies. In their late seventies, Jefferson designed the University of Virginia, and Ben Franklin invented bifocals. Jessica Tandy and George Burns won Oscars at eighty, and Thelma Pitt-Turner ran the Marathon at eighty-two.
At eighty-seven, Mary Baker Eddy founded the Christian Science Monitor, Konrad Adenauer was premier of Germany, and John Gielgud appeared (nude) as Prospero in the movie Prospero's Books. Lisa Meitner was eighty-eight when she won the Enrico Fermi Prize for discovering nuclear fission. In their nineties, Lillian Gish was still acting, Leopold Stokowski still conducting, and Martha Graham still doing choreography. A Greek runner did the Marathon at ninety-eight.
And here we see the embedded message: We reach a point where our lives must be continuations of what we were when we were younger. We're finally formed. Goodness or meanness, either one, can become our theme. Megalomania and racism were only background in Henry Ford's earlier life. In his eighties, they became central themes. We all know a few old people for whom life has shrunk to the lingering ghosts of their old anger, greed, or dyspepsia.
On the other hand, I've been touched by the singing of aging Jan Peerce and John Jacob Niles. Pablo Casals taught a master class three weeks before his death at ninety-three -- still improving his world. It's a fine thing to keep drawing upon accumulated capabilities as we grow very old. But, at some point, we do wake up to find that we are what we've forged of ourselves -- back in the days when vision, memory, and skill were still strong.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Postman, A., There's Always Time for Greatness: Who Did What When From Ages 1-100 (Illustrated by Nick Galifianakis). New York: William Morrow and Co., 1999. (I am grateful to Evelyn Fredrickson for this odd and unexpectedly informative little book.)