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No. 542:
Intellectual Kinship

Today, we learn from a game of intellectual kinship. 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.

Play an odd circle game with me. It's the "Who knew each other" game. Once you start, you learn some remarkable things.

I'll play a round with you. I'll begin when the English industrialist Josiah Wedgwood hired an Evarina Wollstonecraft as governess for his daughters. She, in turn, was the sister of Mary Wollstonecraft -- the mother of modern feminism.

And Mary Wollstonecraft married the anarchist writer William Godwin. He brings us back to Wedgwood. Wedgwood's son Tom was a disciple of Godwin and of his ideas on social reform. So was the poet Coleridge. Coleridge and Tom were close friends.

Those two in turn were friends of the scientist Sir Humphry Davy. Davy led them through experiments with laughing gas. The experiments got rowdy enough to draw public disapproval. Davy quit after the gas almost killed him. But, by then, their horseplay had sown the seeds of modern anesthesiology.

Tom Wedgwood's health began failing after that. His brother went to an old family friend for help in outfitting a house for ailing Tom. That friend was James Watt, and the trail has led us back to Josiah Wedgwood again. You see, when Watt was young, he joined Matthew Boulton in Birmingham to make steam engines.

But he also met with literary people in Birmingham. Most of his life he sat with a small and very high-powered group called the Lunar Society. But so did Boulton -- and Wedgwood!

I'll close this circle here, though I could've gone off in many more directions. I could have circled into America. Benjamin Franklin visited the Lunar Society now and then. Member William Small had once taught math to Thomas Jefferson in Virginia. Member Joseph Priestly was first to isolate oxygen, He ended his days in Pennsylvania.

So you see how we play the game. It's fascinating on many levels. On one level it makes great gossip. But on another, it lends a sudden insight. All at once, the remarkable vision of these people wells up from the chain of connection.

You can begin the game anywhere. Start with the friendship between Mark Twain and the electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla. Begin with Rachmaninoff and helicopter inventor Igor Sikorsky working together.

Our world isn't shaped by specialists. It's given its form, instead, by people who see beyond the road they walk. The greats among us often do know each other. They become great because they're able to gaze through another's eyes -- as well as through their own.

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

(Theme music)

Wedgwood, B. and Wedgwood, H., The Wedgwood Circle -- 1730-1897. New Jersey: Eastview Editions, Inc., 1980.

Much of the specific interconnection I allude to here can be traced in other Engines episodes. These can be located by using the SEARCH function on the home page of this website.


Image courtesy of Special Collections, UH Library

An anti-slavery image from Wedgwood's Botanic Garden, 1799.