Skip to main content
No. 3259:
A Treason to Yield

Today, we resist reason. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run and the people whose ingenuity created them. 

Robert Frost once wrote six lines that've stayed with me:

Ah, when to the heart of a man
Was it ever less than a treason,
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season.

Frost's words echo in the sad story of a Rhode Island merchant, Jacob Isaacks. Isaacks thought he'd come up with a better way to desalt water, back in 1790. He'd made up a compound that he mixed with salt water. He claimed that distilling the mixture would take less fuel than distilling pure seawater. That could've been very useful for our new seagoing country. 

Simple Still
Shipboard distillation in Isaack's time came down to variations on this simple still -- boil the water, then condense the salt-free steam.  (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Isaacks met George Washington who seemed interested. So he next went to the House of Representatives. They could have the process if they'd provide, in his words, "a suitable reward." The House turned to Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, because of his scientific knowledge. Jefferson was intrigued. He sent the compound to the University of Pennsylvania for analysis. They showed that Isaacks' solution actually hindered desalination.

Jefferson's report ended with the words: "... as far as these experiments justify a conclusion, Mr. Isaack's mixture does not facilitate the separation of seawater from its salt." Isaacks wrote Jefferson an agonized letter: "... you must be thoroughly senceable of the injury that report has done me ...". 

That's a sad, but familiar, story. It reminds me of a man who came to me years ago with his new high-efficiency engine. He wanted my opinion, but begged me to sign a confidentiality agreement. I did. And I soon saw that his engine violated the laws of thermodynamics. It was doomed. But this fellow had paid thousands of dollars to patent lawyers. He was not about to see his invention blown away by physics that he neither understood nor believed.

He wasn't trying to fool anyone. And his idea really was pretty imaginative. That was true of Isaacks, too. These inventors leave us with a sense of loss. It's risky to invent. We fail far more often than we succeed. But we must love, we must fight for, our potentially wrong ideas. If we don't, our one good idea will never grow into more than a whim.

That's why it really is a treason for an inventor to yield with a grace to reason. Our world is what it is because so many people have fought for ideas. Sure, Isaacks, and that inventor who came to me, were both wrong. But people with the courage to champion ideas are the ones who build the world we live in. 

So we need to both champion, and attack, our own ideas. Sure, it does feel treasonous when we finally yield to reason. And we shouldn't do so too quickly. But once we do yield, we're freed to create the next new invention, the one that will finally take root and make a better world.

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

(Theme music)


By 1910, these distillation units were carried on the Titanic and her sister ship, the Olympic. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Hirschfeld, F., "Desalination -- circa 1790". Mechanical Engineering, June 1976, pp. 20-21. 

Further details are given in this article from the Newport Mercury:

Isaacks' correspondence about his invention.

Jefferson's letter to Isaacks; and Isaack's biography

The full text of Robert Frost's Poem, titled RELUCTANCE:

Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended.
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended. 
The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.
And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question "Whither?" 
Ah, when to the heart of a man
Was it ever less than a treason,
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season. 

This is a revised version of Episode 330

This episode was first aired on July 23, 2021