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No. 70:
Famous and Unfamous People

Today, some thoughts on fame and fortune. 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.

There's a hymn that's well-known in England. It's based on a text from the Apocryphal Book of Ecclesiasticus:

Let us now praise famous men, ...
Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms,
Men renowned for their power, ...
Such as found out musical tunes,
And recited verses in writing:
All these were honoured in their generations, ...

Of course we do honor famous people. But the text ends strangely:

And some there be, which have no memorial;
Who are perished as though they had never been.
Their bodies are buried in peace;
But their name lives for evermore. ...
The people shall tell of their wisdom.

You don't have to study the history of technology very long to be haunted by countless people with no memorial, who nevertheless do live forever -- anonymous inventors of the wheel, or the windmill, or the plow.

In that wonderful musical about Don Quixote, Man of La Mancha, the serving girl Aldonza asks Sancho Panza why Quixote does the things he does -- why he glamorizes a dirty world. "Why does he do these things?" she sings; and Sancho cannot answer.

We eventually ask that question about ourselves. Why do we undertake the quixotic task of making a nicer world? You find as many answers as engineers, of course. Some want fame. Some want wealth. Some really do want to leave a nicer world behind them. But so many simply take pleasure in the mental exercise of it all.

So we create our own memorials. We achieve wealth by seeking wealth. We become famous by seeking fame. But look around at the memorials of anonymous technology that've made a nicer world -- leaps of the mind that made the automobile differential, the pencil sharpener, the electric plug, the microwave oven, the lawn sprinkler ... . I suppose we could find out who invented each of these things, but we aren't likely to. Yet they're a finer memorial for the quixotic, mentally driven people who gave them to us than wealth or tombstones could ever be.

The great engineering educator Llewelyn Boelter used to say to new engineering students:

The products of your minds are the most precious things that you own ... you must do the right thing with them.

It's those products of your minds that live forever, even if they have no memorial. They're the most precious things you own -- and they're the most precious things that you have to give away.

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

(Theme music)

Anonymous, The Book of Ecclesiasticus. Chapter 44, Verse 1.

This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1443.