It was “Fair Week” in southern New Mexico, and I was up to my neck in the exhibit of the New Mexico Vintage Iron Club, a group of enthusiasts who collect and restore old tractors, and stationary engines to show at fairs and the local Farm and Ranch Museum.
I was sitting under a shade tree with a number of the more “senior” members reminiscing about the time when some of the displayed antiques were “current model”. The discussion turned to life on the farm in those days. If you wanted milk you headed for the barn. If you needed vegetables you went to the garden or, depending on the season, to the root cellar. If it broke you fixed it. If you needed a part, often as not you made one. We were pretty much independent and self-sustaining. We were also innovative.
When the first permanent English settlement in America was established at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 the colonists were pretty much on their own. The government in London wanted nothing to do with them (except when it came to levying taxes) and so their credo became per force “if it is to be, it is up to me.”
This has been the American attitude ever since and it was not restricted to agriculture. Our history is replete with examples of American innovation. Names like Franklin, Whitney, Howe, Cooper, Edison, Bell, Ford, Carnegie, Deere, and Rockefeller populate the pages of our history books as they chronicle the rise of America as an industrial giant, the likes of which the world has never seen.
Innovation has not been restricted to industry and agriculture, indeed our whole nation and our system of government was an innovative experiment in self-determination, proving that the common man was capable of governing himself; the first such institution in history.
The volunteer fire service was an American innovation; first established by Benjamin Franklin in colonial Philadelphia. It still provides a major portion of the fire protection in the United States.
The volunteer Fire Department was one of the first things established when any new settlement was created on the American frontier. It may have consisted only of a bucket brigade at first but it was an effort on the part of the citizenry to use what was at hand in an organized effort to help their neighbors for the common good of all.
From the time that some long forgotten firefighter discovered that a hollowed out log fitted with a piston and a restriction at the end could be used to direct a stream of water onto the heart of a fire with greater control and longer reach than was possible by simply throwing a bucketful on the conflagration, firefighters have been involved in the evolution of emergency response tools and equipment.
The history of American firefighting is replete with names like the Halligan tool, the Cooper hose jacket, the Pulaski ax and the Daspit tool, developed by personnel of Williams Fire and Hazard Control, are everyday components of the fire fighter’s armamentarium.
There is something about the volunteer fire service, both civil and industrial, that attracts those of a mechanical turn of mind. Look at the roster of the volunteers in any community and you will find the local auto mechanic, perhaps a machinist, a welder, an equipment operator and others who possess skills that are often invaluable on the fire ground.
These are the ones who make the wheels turn and the water squirt. These are the ones who, when confronted with an “out of service” team sawed the tongue off the steam pumper, attached an iron fork to the stub and hooked it to a model “T” truck; thus ushering their department into the motorized age.
This independent resourcefulness is much less often found in other countries which have little or no organized volunteer fire and rescue services and it has contributed greatly to the safety record associated with the transportation of Hazardous Materials as articles of commerce. The effectiveness of “volunteer” emergency response organizations lies, in part, in the “day time jobs” of their members.
These are people who make and work with “Haz Mats” on a daily basis, consequently they would be the most knowledgeable with regard to expected reactions, safe handling techniques and proper shipping procedures. After all, if one is confronted with a spill of “tri-methyl-badstuff” who is more likely to know how to handle it and remediate the incident?
Why is this so and why is it so much more evident in the United States than in other cultures?
The answer, I think, is to be found in the history as alluded to in the opening paragraphs. For more than four hundred years Americans have been culturally isolated and dependent and on their own resources in a land that was, and by comparison still is, vast and, in many parts, relatively uninhabited.
We did not have the luxury of being able to “kick the can down the road” to some higher (government) authority when something went awry. As a result we often made up our rules as we went along. This often resulted in a great reduction in the amount of bureaucracy. It also engendered variety and diversity to the equipment roster with occasional “unintended consequences”. (For confirmation look at the problem of hose threads and inter-connect ability).
If something needed to be done and you could do it, have at it. If your weld held did it really matter whether the hand that guided the “stinger” was “certified” or was the important thing the fact that the weld was sufficiently strong to bear the load? The compressed air foam system, developed by the Texas Forrest Service, was a response designed to meet the need to increase the amount of foam that could be generated with a limited amount of water. Was it important that those who developed the system did not include any graduate hydraulic engineers?
The apparatus works and works well and it is still in current use. This willingness to accept resourcefulness at face value and on its merits has paid great dividends to the American fire service and to our culture in general. Another factor in the equation is that of conditions.
If your neighbor’s house is burning you need to act now, there is no time to wade through a mass of bureaucratic red tape. This was probably the case when an unknown employee on a tank farm got the idea of injecting foam through the valve at the bottom of a burning tank, letting it rise to the top of the liquid and spread over the surface extinguishing the fire. The responders didn’t have time to wait for administrative approval; it seemed to make sense to those present, so, “let’s give it a try.” It worked, of course, and sub-surface injection is now a standard operating technique in fighting tank fires.
This is not to imply that every idea that comes down the pike is usable but those that do survive the test of time generally survive. Proposed solutions to perceived problems have sometimes been “interesting” to say the least.
One that comes to mind is the idea (proposed in colonial days) of placing a charge of gunpowder beneath a barrel of water located in the rafters of an unoccupied structure such as a warehouse. In the event of a fire, the powder would explode, disintegrating the barrel and drenching the burning material below. The amazing thing about this idea is that it seems to have actually been tried on more than one occasion and apparently it worked; at least to the point of putting out the fire. The effect on the building is not recorded.
The idea of placing a thin-walled bottle of carbon tetrachloride in an enclosed space expecting it to burst and release the contents onto a fire was quite popular during the first quarter of the twentieth century. This device worked but the hazards engendered by the reaction of carbon tetrachloride with hot metal far outweighed the benefits of early extinguishment (one product of this reaction is phosgene).
These ideas were not ridiculous, they were ingenious and, in their day, innovative. The basic underlying principle, that of an elevated temperature created by a fire employed to trigger the release of a suppressant, is still employed in sprinkler systems.
Having looked at the past accomplishments of our native American creativity and innovation, the question arises “what of the future?”
There are those who decry the younger generation saying that they do not have the inventive genius of their fore-bearers. Not so; it is true that the youngsters of today might not know how to set the points on a v-8 engine but guess what, sports fans, today’s V-8 engines don’t have points.
It’s all electronic and I can assure you my grandson understands a lot more about that than I will ever know. An “old timer” friend of mine once suggested that one of the newly minted engineers from our local university could not tell him how to cut a thread on a taper such as those used on oil rigs. The young man replied “well, no, we wouldn’t cut it with a single point, we would enter it into the 3-D printer and cut the taper and the thread in one operation. End of conversation.
Innovation is a contemplated response to a need and, needs do change. So, it is only to be expected that the method of response will change as well. The innate willingness to confront the challenge and devise a solution is, a constant factor within the human condition.
The products of innovation do not (and often are not) complicated. They are simply the result of a fresh point of view. The two “L” shaped pieces of metal that Gutenberg used to produce the first movable type were not complicated nor technically unique but look at the change in civilization that they engendered.
The introduction of the “Stub sill” tank trailer resulted in a significant increase in the payload that a tank truck could carry within the current weight laws. But there arose a problem in the event of an accident which involved an overturn. These trailers cannot be righted when full without incurring great risk that they will rupture and spill their cargo. They are somewhat like a soda can. They derive their strength from the incompressible liquid lading.
Since the valves of an overturned trailer would be on the top of the tank the lading could not be removed by this route. The need in this case was to find a way to safely remove a hazardous cargo from an overturned trailer.
The solution to this problem was to cut a hole in what is now the top of the overturned trailer, lower a suction pipe into the cargo and pump it off into another tank., after which the overturn could be safely righted. This technique originated with Shell Oil and was developed at the Texas Engineering Extension Service facility at College Station. Another incidence of necessity being the mother of invention. The technique worked and worked well. It is now a standard operating procedure for use in cases requiring the uprighting of an overturned tank trailer.
Innovation may be the result of a lengthy series of trials, errors and experiments or it may be an insightful “spur-of-the moment” solution to a problem. I recall an incident several years ago when the department with which I was associated was called on to render mutual aide in a neighboring community that was confronted with a major conflagration.
When we arrived we found that the threads on the plug would not mate with those on our engine. While we were trying to find a way to get connected to the water we heard a loud noise behind us and we turned to see one of our firefighters, a huge giant of a man who was severely challenged when it came to the ability to speak, coming through a wooden fence carrying a small boat in his arms. Without a word he set the boat under the steamer port and motioned for the others to set up the hard suction; all without a word.
We followed his lead, turned on the water, started the pump and began to make progress toward extinguishment. No great technical breakthrough here, no new mechanical mechanism; just a fresh pair of eyes looking at the problem from a different direction and coming up with a solution. Most importantly, it worked. Now I haven’t seen any pumpers running around carrying a small boat but I have seen quite a few folding tanks that are utilized in the same manner to supply taker operations.
What we saw was simply a quick analysis of the problem, an assessment of the available resources and the utilization of those resources to achieve a workable solution to an urgent need.
Innovation, ingenuity and resourcefulness are not dead in American culture; they are just applied to the solution of different problems and the meeting of different challenges. One only has to look around him to appreciate this.
The world of medicine provides a myriad of examples: a cholecystectomy (gall bladder removal) that used to require extended hospitalization is now almost an outpatient procedure thanks to the laparoscope; an ingenious little device that can be inserted through the abdominal wall to effect the surgery through a “less than one inch incision” (actually a one quarter inch hole).
Heart catheterizations have reduced the number of open chest procedures and enabled many patients who would otherwise be considered untreatable to be salvaged. Stones can now be disintegrated by a laser and flushed out of the kidney without surgery; joints can be repaired or replaced almost as a routine matter.
The list goes on almost beyond belief, and it is not restricted to medicine. Cell phones, computers, robot vacuum cleaners LED lamps (which cut power consumption by as much as 90% in some cases}; all would have been relegated to the role of science fiction only a few decades ago. No, Innovation, ingenuity and resourcefulness are not dead, they may be tuned to other frequencies than those we are accustomed to think of but they are still very much alive.
Innovation is the result of intellectual freedom. It can flourish only in an environment that is conducive to original, creative and innovative thought and protects the rights of creative individuals. Innovation is the genesis of intellectual property. Without the right to use and profit from innovation intellectual progress comes to a standstill and cultural advancement is impossible. The freedom to create and to profit from the effort is, while not actually stated in our Constitution, one of the most precious rights inherent in a free society. May it always be respected and never abrogated..
Another factor which has had a very positive effect on American innovation is universal public education. It is one thing to perceive a need and another to come up with an effective solution to the problem.
Access to free (and compulsory) basic education equips citizens to engage in innovation and to devise something that will fulfill the perceived need. While more common today free public education was almost unknown in the world at the time of the founding of America.
The founding fathers realized the value of a basic education though their reasons for advancing this cause might be argumentative -- they wanted their constituents to be able to read the Bible, the prayer book and the hymnal. The overall effect was certainly laudable and to this day the U.S. has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. If one cannot read the works of others how can he know what he is building on when he confronts a problem and searches for a solution?
Innate curiosity initiates invention, invention engenders innovation and innovation motivates change; which is the essence of progress. So may it ever be.