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No. 456:

Today, we invent a machine by becoming part of it. 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.

Modern engineering designers are up to an odd piece of work. It's called synectics. The word is Greek. It means binding different elements, and it fits invention. We invent when we see relations that other people have missed.

The word synectics was coined by William Gordon in 1961. Gordon points out that putting three people in a room doesn't mean trippling their effect. Three people with IQ's of 150 aren't apt to perform like one person with an IQ of 450. You have to do more than put people in the same space to make them do what they're capable of doing.

Invention is subjective, so our three designers must learn to work together on a subjective level. To see how this works, we join a designer trying to improve an airplane altimeter. He opens it up, looks inside, and begins free-associating

I see a hundred little gears. But the spring catches my eye. Nothing really matters but that spring. What does the spring feel like? Being pushed and pulled is torture. It's too tight in here! How can I free myself -- get rid of the gears? Why can't the spring speak right to the dial?

He draws himself into the machine and abstracts himself from it at the same time. In the end, he sees how the gears have complicated the design. He finds his way to a simpler design. He throws out most of the gears. He uses a visible marker on the spring to display the altitude directly.

It's one thing to work this way alone. But we need a to reinvent cooperation to do it in a group. This is just what Edison managed to do. He relied heavily on a group that functioned subjectively and cooperatively at the same time. He worked with people who'd learned to be vulnerable to new ideas and to trust each other as they did so.

The Synectics program says that a group not only needs to make what is strange, familiar. It must also make what is familiar, strange. A 19th century south seas islander looked at a three masted, two funneled, steamer for the first time. He called it a three pieces bamboo, two pieces puff-puff, walk-along inside, no can see. Enter his mind and you see the machine afresh. That's what we mean by making the familiar strange. And that's the way we gain new eyes to view a problems.

Modern engineering design is up to an odd business. We're learning to speak to that wild intelligent child within us. The stereotype of engineering detachment is as dead as it was misguided. Designing is deeply personal. It's powerfully exciting. And it's time we told our high school students more about it.

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

(Theme music)

Gordon, W.J.J., Synectics. New York: Harper and Roe, 1961.