Some believe and warn that we – the United States as a country – are losing our edge as a great source of innovation — that much of the advances of technology in the future will come from other countries where students are more proficient in math and science and where more engineers are being turned out.
And there is no doubt some truth to such dire warnings. Only 4.4 percent of first university degrees were in engineering in the US, compared to 17.1 percent in Japan and 12.4 percent in Germany.
But there is something else at work here that gives me a least a modicum of hope for our future as an innovation nation. I am referring to our long tradition of tinkering.
Maybe it has its roots in our frontier mentality and history of carving out a civilization from a wilderness. But for whatever reason, Americans seem to have a penchant for not only making do with what we have but go rummaging around in a spare parts bin to develop new ways and things to solve problems.
An example from World War II comes to mind. June 1944: The Allied forces had successfully landed an invasion force in Normandy and were making their way inland from the beaches only to be confronted by the bocage countryside. The bocage was characterized by huge and thick hedgerows, centuries old, that separated farmers’ fields.
Almost impenetrable, the hedgerows made for excellent defensive positions for the Germans. In short, the Allied forces were stuck.
Gitter done, boys
Enter one Curtis G. Culin, a sergeant in the U.S. Army’s 2nd Armored Division’s 102nd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, who came up with the idea of taking angle iron salvaged off the beaches and fashioning out with some creative cutting and welding a hedge-breaching device to be attached to tanks.
Military historian Max Hastings said Culin got the idea from a Tennessean who reportedly said, “Why don’t we get some saw teeth and put them on the front of the tank and cut through these hedges?”
Whether it was Culin, a New Jersey boy, or the Tennessee boy, really matters not. Both American GI’s lived in the tradition of tinkering – rank amateurs, typically with no formal education or training, who recognized a problem and devised a practical, hands-on solution. I don’t think that bottom-up idea would have happened in a European army.
And I submit, that it is our American tradition of tinkering that has served us incredibly well throughout our history and continues to do so even to this day. Currently the biggest American company in terms of net worth was founded by two tinkerers – Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, both college dropouts and both members of the Palo Alto-based Homebrew Computer Club. The rest is, as they say, history.
There is a way with you Yanks
Sometime back in the mid 1990s, a group of British automotive journalists were in Alabama where I was living and had toured the then new Mercedes-Benz plant. I remember joining them for dinner one night and the discussion got around to the respective strengths of our two countries. Keep in mind that the beer was flowing and the conversation was free-spirited to say the least.
The Brits, I said to my guests, displayed a daunting sense of courage under fire that can only be admired. They had an indomitable way of facing adversity with that famous stiff upper lip. “Even when you are getting your asses handed to you, you take your whippings with such incredible class and style.”
My new British friends laughed and someone returned the favor: “You Americans may not always have the best engineering, sometimes it is best described as duct tape and baling wire, but you do come up with ways to solve a problem. Where there is a will, there is a way with you Yanks.”
There were a lot of nods and “here, here’s” around the table and suddenly I felt I was sitting in the House of Lords, or in the case of the gathered journalists, the House of Commons.
“Well, thank you, gentlemen,” I said. “That is very kind and thoughtful for you to say that, but please just be careful about referring to us as “yanks” here in Alabama. It’s too close to “yankees,” a word that is often preceded by the modifier ‘damn.’ ”
As a hybrid son of both the North and the South (my father was from Pittsburgh and my mother from Chattanooga, Tenn.) and having grown up in both Dixie and the Great Lakes foundry culture, I figured I owed my guests that much
In his new book, “The Tinkerers: The Amateurs, DIYers, and Inventors Who Made America Great,” Alec Foege holds that the tinkering tradition is a core American virtue that lives on. “Puttering around with the mechanical devices that surrounded us was practically a rite of passage,” he writes, “and for many, a way of life.”
Foege argues that tinkering has three essential characteristics. First, it involves “making something genuinely new out of the things that already surround us.” Second, it “happens without an initial sense of purpose.” And third, it’s “a disruptive act in which the tinkerer pivots from history and begins a new journey.”
Those attributes would characterize the life of Erle P. Halliburton, a great American tinkerer, and who I learned about this past Thursday from a group of economic developers from the great state of Oklahoma.
Sooners in Texas
We gathered for a reception at the chic Hotel Zaza in uptown Dallas. Our economic development hosts were bent on evangelizing just how fine a place Oklahoma really is. Well, I can tell you from experience that Oklahoma, with one of the fastest growing economies in the nation, really is a fine place.
As a site selection consultant, I would have little qualms of taking a corporate client to Oklahoma should the requirements of the project dictate as much. Of course, I can say that about a lot of places – if the requirements of the project dictate as much.
In that sense, I’m like Will Rogers, who said he never met a man that he didn’t like. Similarly, I have never met a state that I didn’t like, but in serving my corporate clients well, I hope to take them to only those places that are a best fit for their particular needs. And that means literally means from Maine to California, from Canada to Mexico. (And let’s not forget Alaska.)
But let’s go back to Erle Halliburton. Like so many great American tinkerers, Erle, a native of Tennessee, had very little formal education. He was certainly no degreed engineer, even if he were to be eventually granted 38 patents, including the design of aluminum suitcases.
Halliburton left home at the age of 14 to work various jobs, and would join the Navy in 1910. He found himself working in the California oil fields in 1915. He apparently only lasted a year at the Perkins Oil Well Cementing Co. as he was fired for his constant (and unwanted) suggestions on how to improve oil well cementing process.
With his wife Vida, he made his way to Texas and then Oklahoma, where he borrowed a wagon, a team of mules and pump and built a wooden mixing box to start what would become the Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Co., based in Duncan. Along the way, he would pawn his wife’s wedding rings to pay the hired help.
There is a stone statue of Erle in Memorial Park in Duncan. Seated on a couple of wooden boxes, he is labeled “An Uncommon Man.” And so he was, but he followed this American tradition of inventors as tinkerers. Motivated by their own curiosity, in the course of trying to solve one problem, they may end up solving another and then another.
Erle Halliburton and Steve Jobs prove there is a great democratization of ideas at work, that tinkering is something that everyone can do and not just for the trained engineers. This speaks of a certain American ingenuity and optimism. Something broke. You take it apart, try to fix it, and put it back together. Maybe you didn’t put it back together right, but you at least tried and you learned something in the process of getting in there with your hands and your brain.
So parents, if you can bear the thought, let your kids play with fire. Give them a pocketknife. And hand them an unworking (and unplugged) toaster to take apart. These are things that Gever Tulley advises in his Ted Talk called “Five Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do.”
Chances are they might burn or cut themselves or smash a finger, but in the process of you letting them figure out how things work, you are unleashing a new creative world to them with future brainstorms to come. In short, you are creating the tinkerers of tomorrow.
I used to have a sizeable workshop in a former home where I puttered around, often not knowing what exactly I was doing, but still having fun at trying to fix things that I refused to throw away. I hope to have a workshop again one day. I found tinkering, fun and relaxing.
No great inventions yet, but just you wait. I’ll see you down the road.
Dean Barber is the principal of Barber Business Advisors, LLC., a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. He can be reached at 972-767-9518 or at email@example.com Please visit our website at www.barberadvisors.com