Short Stories of Science and Invention
Introduction to Science and Invention
Introduction to Science and Invention
The Intangible in Human Progress
We have just been listening to some of the world's great music. The writing of this fine music has many "intangibles." The notes and intervals and sequences are arranged so as to produce a pleasing, a dramatic, or an inspiring impression. The timing and the arrangements and all the other things that go into a composition determine how much you, the public, will like it. These great musical masterpieces are the final result of inspiration, of cut and try - rewrite and try again. The dramatic stories from the lives of great composers tell this process much better than I can.
Now, composition is to musical notes and tones and intervals what inventions are to iron, and steel, and copper. The difference between good compositions and bad ones, between good inventions and bad ones, is an intangible coordination which is very poorly understood.
You people out there listening to me are sitting in front of a radio. It may be a popular-priced one. It may be a very expensive one. That is not important. But did you ever stop to think just how much that radio of yours is really worth? I mean, if you took it apart and put prices on the parts just as you would on your dinner today. Say, so much for the spinach. So much for the cup of coffee. So much for the lamb chop - that is, if you could get one.
Suppose, in our imagination, we take this radio apart. Suppose we take all the pieces out of the wooden box we call a cabinet. Now, you could call in a good cabinetmaker and say, "Jim, can you make a cabinet like that for me?" He'd answer you, "Of course I can. For about five dollars." You could say to another fellow, "How much can you make that pin for?" He might say, "Oh, about a dime."
Then you look at all the parts on the table. Someone had to make every piece in the set. If you checked only the weight of the material, you'd probably find the radio could be bought for forty or fifty cents a pound. But you can't buy a radio the way you buy a pound of meat. That material isn't all you bought. You bought something else. You bought that intangible something which, when the parts are all put together, makes it work. That something which makes it possible for you to hear the announcer say, "This is London calling."
When you bought that radio you bought the combined knowledge and experience of every great electrical scientist from Michael Faraday on down to the present. You also bought the results of endless experiments and the ideas of thousands of inventors.
That is what is housed in that cabinet along with so many pounds of material - that intangible something which goes into every product - that something which is priceless.
To illustrate how priceless it is - let us suppose there was some force that could take radio away - could completely wipe out radio in the world. What would it be worth to have a group of men rediscover and redevelop that intangible something? The something which makes it possible to take a few pounds of material and a few hours of work and with it be in contact with almost any place in the world.
As purchasers, we see the finished article - the automobile, the radio, the telephone, the airplane or the Diesel locomotive. But how did they come about?
You have heard a great deal about science, research and engineering. But for every experiment that has been a success, there have been thousands of failures, much discouragement and sleepless nights. Long hours have been spent in just thinking about and experimenting with these developments. If that work had not been done, man would not be flying. We would have no electric lights, no motorcars, nor could you now be listening to this great orchestra.
So the thing that really started and maintains progress in the world is man's ability to think, and his dissatisfaction with things as they are. That is the intangible motive power which makes for human progress.
The Birth of an Idea
This Sunday afternoon, in every part of the country, people are listening to this great orchestra. Radio can carry this music to any place in the world.
How long has it taken man to do this? The records show we have been developing the elements of radio for about a hundred years. But, if we made a more careful study, we would find the thing really started in the year 600 B.C. - more than 2,500 years ago. It really started as a thought - a very weak, vague idea. In the year 600 B.C., a Greek philosopher, Thales of Miletus, found that by rubbing amber he produced a force that would pick up straws.
Two thousand two hundred years later, Sir William Gilbert, Queen Elizabeth's physician, did a little more thinking and experimenting with the idea and called the phenomenon electricity. Sixty years later, Otto von Guericke, a German, built a machine to generate static electricity.
One hundred years later, Benjamin Franklin identified positive and negative electricity and proved lightning and electricity were the same thing. In 1820, Oersted, a Dane, proved that electricity would produce magnetism. And about the same time, Faraday did some experimenting and discovered the principles of the electric motor.
Now, here is what happened. After Faraday, came Morse and Bell, who used the idea as a means of communication - the telegraph and the telephone. Edison made the idea glow and lit up the world. Marconi and deForest went Morse and Bell one better and laid the foundation for radio.
But here is the point - for over 2,500 years, that electrical thought had been growing. It had been carefully cultivated and expanded by a few straight-thinking men - a Greek, an Englishman, a German, a Dane, an American and an Italian. Often these men were working at the same time, unknown to each other. And this small, apparently unimportant idea in the year 600 B.C. has grown until it has literally changed the face of the earth and the habits of its people.
Here is an interesting thing about intangible ideas like this one. Once they occur, they are indestructible. Wars, plagues and persecutions may drive them out of sight for a while but they always spring back again perhaps in another man's brain, perhaps in some other part of the world, to be cultivated and enlarged. And I cannot feel but sometime there will be another mentality similar to Schubert's that will catch the same theme that he had, and write the finishing part of that great symphony.
There have been only a few thousand of these thought cultivators in the history of the world. It has been said that except for about 1,500 of these thinkers living in the last 3,000 years, we might still be living in caves.
Now, somebody might say that if these people are as rare as all that there isn't much that can be done about it. We'll just have to wait until one happens to come along. But that isn't true. We can develop thinkers just as we can educate people in other lines. If no one practiced playing the violin, there wouldn't be any great violinists. Through practice, we can develop this ability to think.
Along with these original thinkers, we have millions who are afflicted with mental laziness - those who are satisfied. They are the easy thinkers. When a new thought is given them, they find it much easier to agree than to question it. And that is dangerous, especially if the idea is a bad one.
We are fighting the world's greatest war because millions of people were sold one of these bad ideas. But I am still in hope that we can some day put as much energy into the development of good, constructive ideas as we are now putting into the fighting of a bad one. And speaking of good, constructive ideas, we might still go back to 600 B.C. and find out why the amber picked up the straws. We don't know that yet. If we did, I believe we could open up new fields that might be quite as important as the electric light, the telephone or the radio.
Ideas Are More Permanent Than People
Today I should like to tell you about the work of a friend of mine who has studied the distribution of our cultural and industrial activities. In making these studies he has a large map of the World and on this map he puts pins for the things he is comparing. If it is music and inventions - he would choose a period of time - say 50 or 100 years - select the important composers of the period - and put red pins at the location of their homes. He would then pick out the outstanding inventions of the same period and locate the inventors' homes with blue pins. It is surprising how they group together. He points out that all of our activities are much more interrelated than we normally think - and that no great development is ever possible in one line without having some effect on all others.
As a very simple example - take the period from 1850 to 1900. During that time lived one of the greatest composers - Richard Wagner, whose music we are hearing this afternoon. Contemporary with Wagner - we find the name of Rudolph Diesel who invented the engine which today appears in the headlines in connection with submarines, tanks, landing boats and streamlined trains. Both were Germans. But the comparison sometimes goes further than the simple geographic location. For instance Wagner was exiled from Germany and some of his greatest work was done while he was out of his own country. The Diesel family was in Paris at the time of Rudolph's birth and, because of the political situation, they were forced to return to Germany. That particular period was a very turbulent one and it seems to have affected all forms of human activity.
The comparison of music and invention may not hold good in all respects. The music to which we have been listening exists today as composed by Richard Wagner. It is a perfected idea like a painting, a statue, or a poem - it has been transported to many countries, and played by many orchestras - but it retains its original form. Today we have the music as originally composed - and the masterly interpretations of Toscanini's broadcast to millions of listeners. And through recordings, this music is available for command performances at any time.
The engine of Diesel's, on the other hand, was just the physical representation of an idea. The idea was a seed, a seed which, although it was transported to other parts of the world, kept growing and changing until today practically nothing is left of the original engine.
This change is the result of the work of American engineers who in the last 20 years have entirely transformed the engine from a heavy, slow-speed source of power to one of high speed, great flexibility, and light weight. This new engine is one of America's most important contributions to the war.
But in many ways ideas are more important than people - they are much more permanent. Just like the electrical idea which I mentioned some time ago, that was born 2,500 years ago - the Diesel engine grew out of something that happened hundreds of years before the inventor was born.
Natives on the island of Samoa in trying to find a means of making fire suitable for their island hit upon a new idea. They carefully fitted a wooden plunger to a hollow section of bamboo which was closed at one end. Then they put a piece of dried moss on one end of the plunger and placed it in the hollow section. By striking the other end of the plunger sharply with the hand it compressed the air in the cylinder. If this is done very quickly the heat in the air will ignite the moss. Diesel saw one of these South Sea pocket lighters in Augsburg, Germany - and his idea for the compression ignition engine was born. At about the same time Herbert Stuart, an Englishman, also worked with the same type of engine. This idea had been growing and expanding over all these years from a simple lighter in Samoa to a power machine in Germany and England.
Whether it is a composer working with combinations of notes, or an inventor working with combinations of materials, these original thinkers seem to have many things in common.
First, there is the desire and ability to create - to do something original - something no one has ever done or been able to do before. Second, there is the quality of persistence, the urge to keep going until it is finished - regardless of surroundings, poverty or health. Third, there is that dissatisfaction which seems to be the standard equipment of these men. Regardless of how outstanding their work appears to the world, they themselves are never satisfied with it and are sure if they had it to do over they could have done a better job.
When we listen to masterpieces of music, read the literary classics or experience the comforts and conveniences science has given, let us go back beyond these physical things and pay tribute to the spirit of these men who have contributed so much in the conquest of civilization.
Research is a State of Mind
Every time I have the good fortune of being in the studio audience at Radio City I am impressed with the fact that it takes much less energy to listen to music than to direct or play it. So, while the Maestro and the orchestra rest for a moment, I will tell you of a simple comparison between Music and Research that we have used many times.
This afternoon we are listening to the compositions of Mozart. He was one of those rare and talented individuals who had the natural gifts of both composition and execution. He was a child prodigy. This type of individual is rare but each generation may produce one or more - they occur not only in the musical field but also in art, medicine and science, and their contributions are of great importance. Most of our work, however, must be done by people with just ordinary abilities in the beginning who reach positions of skill or responsibility by practice, study and plain persistence.
Now, I don't know the individual histories of the men in this orchestra but I suspect the majority of them are here as the result of arduous practice and much hard work and, in many cases, sacrifices of many kinds. This Symphony Orchestra is a body of men, who, in order to perform superbly as a group, must first be able to perform equally well as individuals. Just organizing a group of poor musicians doesn't make a good orchestra.
Research is done in much the same way. Our work can either be the effort of a group or of individual specialists. In fact, just like a good orchestra, each man must be a skilled and talented individual. There is one outstanding difference, when we compare Orchestras with Research - Research has no Mozart score to follow - we are working with unwritten scores. The procedure must be different in nearly every case. It is more like composition and performance at the same time.
For many years there has been much misunderstanding as to just what Research is. The popular conception seems to be that there is something mysterious about it, and before any Research can be done it is necessary to have expensive scientific apparatus and large, elaborately equipped buildings. Actually, this is not so. Research isn't a physical thing at all but just a state of mind. It is a simple organized way of trying to accomplish something you wish to do - so simple that anyone can do Research anywhere at any time.
First, you select the problem you would like to solve, then you list at least ten reasons why this has not been solved. But in picking that problem be sure to analyze it carefully to see that it is worth the effort. It takes just as much effort to solve a useless problem as a useful one. Make sure the game is worth the candle.
After carefully - and I want to emphasize that word "carefully" selecting the problem and the ten things between you and the solution, you then use the same procedure as in solving a crossword puzzle. You take the easy obstacles first and by a process of elimination you arrive at last at the one or two major ones. In the solution of the remaining obstacles you may need some simple apparatus, but the things you will probably need most are infinite patience and persistence. Few people realize the difficulties of doing any new thing.
Maybe one of the reasons people are so easily discouraged is because of their education. During all of our years at school we were examined two or three times a year. If we failed once we were out. In contrast, all Research work is 99.9 per cent failure and if you succeed once you are in. If we are going to progress in any line we must learn to fail intelligently so we won't become discouraged at the 99.9 per cent failure.
As we approach the end of the War and make plans to go back to our normal ways of living we are going to be faced with unlimited problems. I am talking about Research, today, because it is just a method of intelligent planning. As you probably know, some four or five hundred postwar planning groups have been organized to take care of some of these problems for us.
That is a step in the right direction, but I don't believe that is enough - we ought to have 135,000,000 planners. Each individual in this country should be doing his or her own planning - should be forming a one man or woman research project. We should not be looking outside for this help. We should be doing it for ourselves - as individuals.
But as we face tomorrow let us pick our problems very carefully and separate clearly in our minds the great difference between constructive postwar planning and very unproductive postwar wishing.
Experiment vs. Theory
It hasn't been so long ago, I believe, that we read in the papers that our Air Forces had bombed the Italian city of Pisa. That news probably brought to our minds a mental picture of the Leaning Tower and we probably wondered if it had been hit. From the best information I am able to obtain, the Leaning Tower still stands. It is a great curiosity in the architectural world. But it is also a reminder of one of the most interesting experiments that has ever been performed.
In order to get the setting for this experiment, we go back to the 4th Century, B.C., and the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. He was one of the first great scientists, and contributed much to medicine and astronomy; in fact, for 2,000 years following his death his writings were the only natural science books recognized by educators. In the 16th Century, a young student in Pisa, by the name of Galileo, figuratively threw a monkey-wrench in the machinery by questioning some of Aristotle's statements.
It was a common belief at that time that all scientific problems had been settled finally and conclusively 2,000 years previously. But Galileo wasn't satisfied with this. Later, when he was a young professor himself, he had quite an argument with some of the older ones on the correctness of Aristotle's theory that a heavy weight will fall faster than a light one, and he offered to prove his point.
In answer to the challenge, his demonstration was to be made from the Leaning Tower of Pisa before a large audience of University people. That is the time, you will remember, when he dropped a ten pound iron ball and a one pound iron ball simultaneously from the top of the Tower. Much to the amazement and chagrin of everyone but Galileo, the two balls hit the ground at the same time. But that did not convince the crowd. They hissed Galileo, accused him of being a magician and went on following Aristotle.
300 years have passed since Galileo died, but even today we are faced with the same problem: just when should we discard information that has been useful in the past? This problem worries everyone who teaches, as well as every scientist and engineer. The value of information is not a question of how old or new it is.
A friend of mine, who teaches general medicine at one of our large Universities, once told me this story while discussing a similar point. He is an old hand at teaching medicine. He lectures to the classes, teaching the boys to be general practitioners. His system is sound and doesn't differ radically from similar courses in other Universities, except the last lecture he gives the group. That lecture is unique. On this occasion, he says, in part:
"Young men, we are together for the last time. We have had a very pleasant time. You have been a good class and I have enjoyed working with you.
"I have given you the best information available - the best case histories I could find. The textbooks we have used are the most widely accepted and reliable. But before we part company, I want to caution you that the science of medicine is developing so rapidly that in a few years from now perhaps half of the things I have taught you won't be so. Unfortunately, I don't know which half that will be."
What the professor was really doing was warning these new doctors not to accept the information he had given them as final. Professors, scientists, and engineers have come a long way since Galileo's time - and so has the World. But we are all faced with the fact that some formulas, based on good information at the time, must change in the light of new information.
Modern research laboratories have accelerated the need for these changes - not through any sleight-of-hand or secret magic, but because research men are willing honestly to question some of our man-made rules.
By adopting that mental attitude, they place themselves in a position where they are willing to try things. In my opinion, an ounce of experimentation is worth a pound of untried theory.
Looking forward, it often seems as if all of the worthwhile things have been done. But if we re-examine the World around us with a fresh outlook-raise our sights above our man-made limitations, as Galileo did - I am sure we shall be surprised to learn how little we really know. Or - if you want to look at it another way - as a philosopher once said, "It is not the things we don't know that get us into trouble - it is the things we know for sure that are not so."
Hand and Mind When the war came, our armed forces and industry were faced with a colossal training problem. For this was a technological war, involving thousands of different kinds of intricate mechanisms, requiring a knowledge of their construction, operation and maintenance. Our enemies had been instructing their men in the construction and use of these devices for many years. We had only months to do our job and we must do it better. For a long time, industry had been working on special training methods, using the cooperative system of education. As an example, we have a large school, known as the General Motors Institute of Technology, where the students work half time and go to school the other half. This system was first used by Dean Herman Schneider in the Engineering School of the University of Cincinnati years ago. Many schools are now applying this system to all types of courses.
I have always considered this cooperative system of Dean Schneider's as really an invention. To appreciate the importance of his work, we must go back to the beginning of our educational system. In the early days, in this country, industry was in the home - each household was almost a complete industrial organization. It raised its own food, made its own clothing, depended on the horse for its limited transportation.
The school was set up to supply the cultural part of the educational system; the opportunity for industrial training was right in the home.
As time went on, industry began to leave the home. The textile mills and the manufacturing tailors began to supply clothes; materials for housing were made by commercial companies; the production of food became a large-scale business; the horse gave way gradually to the train and then to the automobile, bus, and airplane. Thus the home and industry became completely separated, yet our educational facilities remained essentially unchanged.
Dean Schneider was one of the first to recognize that some of the approaches to education should be changed to meet the new conditions. While attending Lehigh, he felt the need of some practical method of practicing the theory he was learning. One evening, while walking across the campus, he was startled by the roar of a Bessemer converter at a nearby steel plant. Here was the answer to his problem - a large industry, a vast industrial laboratory and a University were within easy reach of each other. Why not bring education and training together again? The student could learn his theory during part of the school year, and then go over to the nearby plant and learn the practical side for the remainder of the year. When the student finished college, he could go right to work without the usual "breaking in" period. Overcoming hundreds of objections to this idea, Dean Schneider won his point and in the last forty years there has been a growing trend on the part of education and industry to unite theory and practice.
The intense program required to educate our armed forces and millions of new workers brought into sharp focus the fundamental difference between basic education and intensive special training. This great program has produced a three-way cooperative system consisting of the armed forces, educational institutions and industry.
Yesterday, in an incredibly short time, young men were taught to fly a bomber with 7,000 horsepower. Others were trained to maintain and service these great planes. Men were taught to command PT boats and submarines; to become radar experts, and man ships crossing the seas. Our enemies' Blitz warfare was met by our" Blitz training."
This supreme training effort was so successful that people quite naturally asked, "If we can do this in wartime, why not in peacetime?" I think we can apply some of our wartime experience to education. Just as it was possible for our knowledge of peacetime manufacture to supply the technique for war production, so our special training programs are the result of the seeds which have been sown by our educational institutions over the past years. If we had not had this broad educational background, we could not have done this spectacular job.
After the war, the universities and colleges of this country will continue to supply the traditional cultural and basic education, while industry will want to cooperate in making available special courses to better prepare young men and women to meet the specific problems of tomorrow by training their hands as well as their minds.
Return to "Short Stories of Science and Invention" Home Page