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No. 1700:
Lost Agents

Today, we dodge invention. 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.

This is my seventeen-hundredth program. That comes to about nine-hundred-thousand carefully-chosen words. I should've developed some confidence with language by now. But I can grow only increasingly puzzled by the strange medium of words.

Joan Rivers set me to thinking about the way we force language to protect us from action as she interviewed rich and famous women entering the Oscars ceremony. She stopped each dazzling woman to ask, "Who are you wearing?" Think of the possibilities: A woman in leather pants replies, "Why, my dear, I'm wearing Elsie the Cow."

Rivers' circumlocution dodged any reference to action. "Who designed your dress?" would require us to refer directly to action by a designer. But action is strangely déclassé.

B is severely depressed. A says, "B, you need to talk to someone." Is A not somebody? For A to admit that she's suggesting the actions of a psychiatrist or a counselor is unacceptable.

Think about the phrase "God bless," so widely used by politicians and the homeless. The trick is to be aligned with God without any messy commitment. We get around it by failing to identify the blessee. If we said, "God bless you," or, "God bless us one and all," we'd lose the secular neutrality of "God bless."

Nowhere do we so erase the direct action as we do when we use the word innovation. To innovate literally means to add something new to what has already been invented. And that brings us to invention. Is invention too grand, or too personal, to be voiced?

Two thoughts here: First, I cannot think of any invention that was made purely ab initio. We never pull invention out of completely empty air. In that sense, there is only innovation, and invention is just a daydream.

On the other hand, you yourself have conceived utterly new ideas out of your imagination. The fact that you've drawn upon others takes nothing away from your originality. Think about the ancient inventor who first let wagon wheels rotate freely on a fixed axis instead of anchoring them to a rotating axle. That way wheels could turn at different speeds as they went around a corner.

Since wagons and wheels were already there, was that person an innovator or an inventor? Well, the idea was surely born in the fiery brilliance of one mind. No matter that the mind worked in concert with many other minds; the fixed axle was invention.

So back to "Who are you wearing?" and to "God bless." We're in trouble if action isn't personal. The word invention knifes into some deeply private place. I suspect that when Shakespeare said

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,

even he was distancing himself from those fiery forces. Call your own invention by some lesser name if you must, just as long as you go ahead and invent, nevertheless.

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

(Theme music)

Tower of Babel