An Appreciation of Ingenuity

The application of skill and imagination to create new things

I’ve long thought that typewriters were amazing. The above image, taken of the machine I used in my freshman year of college, called out to me recently so I decided to try to understand why. By consulting the web I discovered that in 1575 an Italian printmaker named Francesco Rampazetto built a machine to impress letters on paper. Centuries and many iterations later, the machines were huge and impractical. Then in 1868 Americans Christopher Latham Sholes, Carlos Gladden and Samuel W. Soule of Milwaukee invented the first commercially successful, small device that everyday people could use to type words on paper. A prototype was made by machinist Matthias Schwalbach and E. Remington and Sons (of sewing machine fame) purchased the patent for $12,000. To promote and sell the machine, they called it a “typewriter.”

The number, variety and complexity of working parts in a typewriter still has me marveling at how a person could envision the whole system and then create the many metal parts such that they fit together perfectly to perform its function. “Ingenuity,” the quality of being clever, original and inventive, is certainly the word for it.

In the movie The Martian starring Matt Damon, his character was a master of ingenuity, inventing solutions to seemingly impossible, life threatening circumstances. After a moment of  accepting his inevitable death he decides instead to survive—and he gets busy. The television series Scorpion has gained popularity in part, I believe, because ingenuity on the part of the geniuses overcomes seemingly impossible situations. The take action. Although these are fictitious stories, they demonstrate the very real capacity for human beings to envision and then act in order to build, improve, discover, prevent or recover. In short, to innovate and advance. The motion picture and television industries have evolved the capacity to seamlessly put on the screen anything we can imagine. I think humanity itself is going down that road. The ability to create what we envision is so strong in us, I can well imagine that human beings placed on a lifeless planet, given enough time and opportunity, could turn it into a habitable place, perhaps even transform it into a living system. Like my dad often said, “The impossible just takes a little longer.”

Along with the application of ingenuity and innovation comes advances in understanding our fuller potentials, including who we are, why we’re here, what works and what doesn’t work and the part we’re playing in the unfolding story of the universe. We are not only human beings, we are also human doings.

Observing human activity over the past several decades, geneticists have found that even in the physical domain, “Human evolution has sped up in the past 40,000 years, becoming 100 times faster in the past 5000 years alone.” Buckminster Fuller, whom I was privileged to know, found that up until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II knowledge was doubling every 25 years. “Nanotechnology knowledge is doubling every two years and clinical knowledge every 18 months. On average human knowledge is doubling every 13 months.” In 2013 IBM postulated that the Internet will lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours. And then there’s Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, which says “There’s exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. As we discover more effective ways to do things, we also discover more effective ways to learn.” He says we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress at today’s rate.

From the perspective of the individual person, the activities of satisfying day-to-day needs and wants challenges us to be clever, original and inventive. We envision and take action to secure a better life for ourselves and our families. And we’re always looking for a better way of doing things. Standing back and looking at all this activity from an evolutionary perspective, it appears that we are agents of the universe, exercising a variety of drives that are moving us—purpose—through increased complexity, awareness and experimentation to become more on its behalf, perhaps to realize more of its unlimited potential. Could it be that through us, and possibly other intelligent creatures, the universe is expressing all that it can be? Assuming so, I asked myself—Specifically, what are these drives, the urges within us, that are moving the human project forward?

One night I awoke to a litany of action words filling my head. Annoyed but grateful, I jotted them down. I list them below as ways the universe is using us to become more aware, to envision, build and grow. They’re intended to be scanned here, rather than read, as an illustration of how so much of what we’re dreaming and doing is the universe operating through us.

Out of these considerations I conclude that we’re not just here for ourselves. That those alive now are are the leading edge of consciousness manifesting the world through everyday needs, wants and aspirations, applying ingenuity to purpose. From this perspective, the universe is as much a verb as it is a noun. And the typewriter, now the computer, is evidence of it.

So here is my partial listing of the acts, drives and urges, that are moving humanity forward —

Accelerate / Accentuate / Affiliate / Allocate / Appropriate / Articulate / Authenticate / Communicate / Compensate / Concentrate / Congregate / Contemplate / Create / Cultivate / Decorate / Demonstrate / Discriminate / Educate / Eliminate / Extrapolate / Fascinate / Fixate / Illuminate / Incorporate / Integrate / Interpolate / Investigate / Invigorate / Manipulate / Mate / Migrate / Orchestrate / Participate / Penetrate / Perpetrate / Procrastinate / Procreate / Propagate/Reciprocate / Recreate

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. — Ralph Waldo Emerson


One of our assignments at RIT was to make a photograph with a view camera that displayed shallow depth of field, so only the point of “critical focus” would be sharp. It’s easy to do by getting in close on a subject and exposing at the widest aperture possible. Through the years I occasionally wondered why I didn’t clean the typewriter keys before shooting them. Now I think the accumulated particles from the ribbon contribute to the sensibility of a well used machine.



Photography Monographs (Click on the pages to turn them)


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