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No. 539:
Simple Gifts

Today, I receive a gift. 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.

My father did a remarkable thing in 1939. We lived in St. Paul. My uncle was a doctor at the Mayo clinic, ninety miles south. One day we drove down for a visit. My father was impulsive by nature. This day, on a lark, he said, "How would you like to fly back?"

The ticket cost nine dollars -- a small fortune before WW-II. I was stunned by the magnitude of the gift. I'd dreamt of flying since my first memory of thought. Now it was really going to happen. He sent me off into the sky with a streetcar token to get home and a nickel for a phone call -- just in case.

He sent me off in that great old workhorse, the Douglas DC-3. There I gained my first vision of earth falling away. That's strong stuff, after you've imagined it for so long.

Years later I learned about another gift, from another father. One evening in 1874 a Bishop of the United Brethren Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, brought a toy helicopter home to his two youngest sons. That was also a gift he could ill afford on his $1000-a-year salary. The Bishop's name was Milton Wright. His two sons were Orville and Wilbur.

Oddly enough, we didn't have real helicopters until long after those two brothers gave us the airplane. In fact, the first helicopter flew the same year I did. Orville Wright was still very much alive in 1939. And, like him, I wanted to build airplanes when I grew up.

By 1951 I had both my degree and a job with Boeing Aircraft. Boeing put me to work drafting brackets for the B-52 bomber. That somehow fell short of dreams shaped by the buoyancy of DC-3s, crop dusters, and skywriters. My dream of flight was wed to the lightness of being, not to the weight of bombs. So I gave up Boeing. I set out to find new dreams.

And I found them. My father's gift had done its work in my life. It told me that the unexpected can happen. It told me that dreams can be realized, but that they also grow and change.

His impulsive gift showed me that we have both the power and the obligation to enrich each other's lives, as he enriched mine -- as Bishop Wright enriched the lives of his two sons -- and as Orville and Wilbur finally enriched all of us.

That gift opened my eyes to surprise. That's what the act of invention is. Invention is the gift of surprise. It is the evolution of the dream. And it waits for any of us able to open our eyes -- and able to see the gift.

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

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