Bloody hard education

January 17, 1996|By Robert Burruss

KENSINGTON -- People who use the Internet often sign off with quotations. I've compiled several dozen over the past year. ''Technology, n. domesticated natural phenomena,'' is used by one of the regulars on the sci.energy newsgroup. ''Opportunity is missed by most people because it's dressed in overalls and looks like work.'' That's attributed to Thomas Edison.

I'm no stranger to overalls and physical labor. But most of my career has been spent doing feasibility studies that always end with ''More study is needed.'' The pay is good, but the spiritual price is high because nothing concrete ever gets created.

''A man should build a house with his own hands before he calls himself an engineer.'' That's attributed to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and it provoked this essay.

The verb ''to REALize'' has lately been on my mind in relation to the distance between having an idea and REALizing it, i.e., bringing it -- forcing it! -- into reality. Direct bloody-handed experience of converting ideas into actual hardware should indeed be an engineering qualification.

The most difficult idea that I forced all the way into physical reality involved the use of electrically heated air to evaporate nicotine and other taste ingredients from tobacco -- without combustion.

Like most ideas, it was simple. I figured I could prove the basic principle in a few days at most, and bring it to market within half a year, then lie back and wallow in the megabucks from my ''Health Pipe.'' Eleven years later I had a semi-practical working model plus two patents worth the waste value of the paper they're written on.

I wrote the patents myself. The Main Search Room of the Patent Office is a library of millions of ideas which, in the end, cost most inventors many times more -- psychologically, physically and financially -- than was ever REALized into a working product and positive cash flow.

Hopes and dreams

A friend who helped me do a patent search found a patent for a ''Combined Crucifix, Font, and Candelabrum'' (No. 682,952, granted to H. F. Nehr on September 17, 1901). The ''removable Corpus'' touched her sympathies for the plight -- ''the hopes and dreams,'' she said -- of inventors. Aspiring inventors should do their own patent searches so they can get a perspective on where they and their ideas stand in the great flow of technology.

Facing the horror of REALizing an idea is among the most powerful of life's learning experiences. My scars from the cuts and burns that I got in my battles to inform new shapes upon matter are badges of knowledge. I like to think that the majority of the millions of doleful patents in the Main Search Room are evidence that others too have learned directly the hard physical recalcitrance of matter to assume the shape and function of a momentary idea. I hope, too, that all that hard-acquired knowledge has led less to cynicism than to a certain wisdom in the collective unconscious of our technological society.

Solzhenitsyn's quote suggests a truly REAListic engineering education: Suppose a student engineer had to make some piece of hardware entirely from so-called ''scratch.'' Something simple. A safety pin, for instance.

''From scratch'' means that the only allowable material would be dirt. Soil would be the source of the physical matter.

The student engineer would be allowed free access to information from books and to consult with instructors, mentors and professors. But the project itself --the making of a safety pin -- would consist of extracting the iron from soil and then shaping it.

The student would first have to identify the best local sources of iron-rich dirt, then apply chemistry to ''reduce'' iron from its oxide form (as it occurs in the soil) and learn the metallurgy of making the iron into steel -- all by actually doing it! In other words, while information would be free, knowledge would have to be gained from direct experience. The student would learn -- know! -- that the only thing that comes from books is information, and that actual knowledge comes only from doing.

The work of God

Several years would be needed to gather information and apply it to actually making a safety pin. The student would replicate the methods used by the earlier builders and shapers of industrial society as they learned to extract metals from rocks, make alloys, and then inform shape upon the formless and the nameless. It's the work of God, really, and not got from books or words, but only from doing.

The student would have to learn to make fire without matches or lighters -- unless by learning first how to make matches or even lighters from earthy raw materials right out of the ground.

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