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No. 2425:

Today, we make sketches. 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.

Children were once taught to sketch. We learned drawing right alongside the three R's in the 1930s. High school and college reinforced the importance of sketching in drafting courses. On the surface, drafting stressed the formal use of pens, T-squares, and French curves. But at the heart of drafting lay means for making understandable sketches -- pictures of our imagined realities that a machinist or client could easily grasp. Since then, that focus on quickly rendering ideas into pictures has faded. And that worries me.

Now Arthur Molella, director of the Smithsonian' Lemelson Center for studying invention, has written an article on "Inventor Sketches." For sketches lie at the heart of invention. An idea uncommunicated is, after all, an idea still in vitro. The sketch is where the inventor first meets what was previously only grey matter. It's as important to the inventor as it is others.

The role of sketches becomes very clear as we trace the ones in the article. Take Charles Brannock's shoe measuring device. It's now used in every shoe store to gauge the size and width of our feet. Brannock's sketch, done casually on a piece of company letterhead in the early 1920s, is instantly recognizable. Tupper's patent drawing

I like Orla Watson's drawing of the telescoping shopping cart. Watson came up with this idea in 1946.  Shopping carts had gained in popularity since their introduction ten years earlier, and were now cluttering stores. Watson saw how to place many carts in a small space. Here, in an almost childlike, but utterly clear, sketch, we see just how that could be, and now is, done. 

Earl Tupper was a sketcher who filled every spare moment with doodles. And his sketching led to many inventions. Here we see his crowning achievement: A beautifully simple, clear, hand-drawn, patent diagram. It shows a plastic bowl with a tight-fitting lid. This is his 1957 invention of a wonderfully convenient line of sealed dishes made from polyethylene -- his Tupperware.

Ten years later Tupper was surely on the mind of the screenwriter for The Graduate. Do you remember, "I want to say just one word to you ... Plastics." Yet -- beauty and economy are what we see in his fine patent sketch. For here is where the thing in Tupper's mind gained life in the real world.

William James and others argued that thought cannot arise from experience alone. It needs some expressive vehicle. Words are one such vehicle. But our own mental pictures are equally important. Just think about our early human forebears making fine cave art at the same time they were developing spoken language. It was they who began the Paleolithic forward leap in technology.

Molella's subtitle is, "When Pencil Meets Paper ... Remarkable Things Happen." I like that since I'm sure invention occurs just when we know how to speak in pictures -- as well as in mere words.

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

(Theme music)

A. Molella, Inventor Sketches, Why Didn't I Invent That? When Pencil Meets Paper and Remarkable Things Happen. Invention & Technology, Fall 2008, pp. 48-54. 


Shoe sizing device
Brannock's sketch of his shoe sizing device. (Image courtesy of the Lemelson Center.) 

JHL's racing car
This sketch, made when I was 14, imagines my model airplane engine mounted in a race car as shown. When I realized that it would take off at an uncontrollable high speed and crash into some obstable after a few seconds, I never built it.