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The Engines of Our IngenuityAn Engineer Looks at Technology and Culture$
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John H. Lienhard

Print publication date: 2000

Print ISBN-13: 9780195135831

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780195135831.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 01 August 2021

The Common Place

The Common Place

Chapter:
(p.55) 4 The Common Place
Source:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity
Author(s):

John H. Lienhard

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/oso/9780195135831.003.0006

A contradiction swirls around invention. While invention flows from an uncommon quarter of the mind, it ultimately comes to rest in the day by day world where we live our lives. Invention defines the commonplace world that we all share. The creative imperative is a unique and wonderful thing, yet it grows in the common clay of coping and of play, and that is also where it comes to rest. We celebrate the magnificent steam engines, airplanes, and cathedrals. But look around your room for a moment. When I do that I see paper, windowpanes, wood screws, a pencil sharpener, paint, and carpeting. Everything but the cat sleeping on the window ledge came into being after long sequences of invention by many people. Even the cat’s subtle gestures and communications maybe partly the stuff of my own contrivance. When we look with the eye of the mind at the everyday world around us, we see how much human imagination has run riot through it. We realize how imagination has invested the basest elements of our lives with possibilities. Try counting the cost of the ordinary world in the coin of human ingenuity. Cartographers who invented the globe on my bookshelf gave me a way to visit Fiji, Chad, and Tibet—places where fortune is unlikely to take me. The simple crank mechanism on my pencil sharpener represents a huge leap of the mind that took place only about twelve hundred years ago (a matter we talk about in Chapter II). Imagination has enriched every corner of those common places where we all live out our lives. For example, a hassled secretary hacks out a living on a new IBM typewriter in 1951. The typewriter’s ribbon ink leaves nasty smudges when she erases an error. In a burst of creative frustration, she goes home and invents a liquid for painting out mistakes. Its base is white tempera paint, the woman’s name is Betsy Nesmith, and the liquid is an immediate hit with other typists. By 1956 she is running a cottage industry, mixing the brew for other secretaries.

Keywords:   automobiles, bicycles, fossil fuels, glass, imagination, light bulbs, mass production, poetry, smelting, textiles

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