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No. 1793:
What Was Your Name?

Today, what was your name, back in the States? 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.

An old folksong from the California Gold Rush has been on my mind lately. I can't shake it. It goes like this:

Oh, what was your name in the States?
Was it Johnson or Thompson or Bates?
Did you murder your wife?
And fly for your life?
Say, what was your name in the States?

We all carry two histories with us. One is the set of facts about our lives, seen through the inevitable distortions of memory. The other is the history we tell about ourselves. More often than not that history is truthful, but it's never complete.

More important, neither history is the one seen by those who know us. The history known by our friends is always slightly askew, because it's weighted toward who we were. When we relocate, much of that history begins right now. When pioneers went west, the clock of their own history was restarted the moment they settled.

Of course, most of us want friends who know who we were as well as who we are. I surely do. But now and then we also need to be reborn. The old West was a new start for people of every race and walk of life. Those people, flung so far from all they'd been, had to reinvent themselves; it was no matter of choice.

The old Western towns had no second-generation families. The whole population was in the same boat. "What was your name in the States?" was actually a question you thought twice about before asking, because it was invasive. It violated reinvention.

Some years ago I moved to an old established Midwestern city. When I went to the bank to ask for a home loan, the elderly banker looked me over and finally said, "I don't know, son; we get a lot of vapuh [vapor] through here." Whatever my name had been in the States, it was not in the social register. I was a non-person.

Houston, Texas, is quite another matter. It's a fine begin-again city. We're all minorities. You hear any language or music, eat any food, walk with the rich or the poor and not wonder if you have the right to do so. Who my parents were matters only to me.

And we're back to the inventive process: It may sound strange for someone with my interest in history to quote Whitehead's infamous remark, "A science which hesitates to forget its founders is lost." Yet once we set out to invent, that's precisely what we must do.

Whoever I was back in the States, I must become someone new if I mean to invent. I must think thoughts that've not been thought before. We cannot invent a machine, or a song, or a picture without partly reinventing ourselves. In fact, you'll find that a remarkable spate of invention flowed from those Westward-moving American pioneers.

They were no longer who they'd been. When everything begins right now, more things begin than we expect. Cherish old friends, by all means, but when it comes to invention, every act is a begin-again act. It really cannot matter who you were in the States.

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

(Theme music)

Sandburg, C., What Was Your Name in the States? The American Songbag, New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1927, pg. 106.

What was your name in the States?

What was your name in the States? (from Harper's Weekly, May 1, 1875)