Straight Talk

Dec. 21, 2004
Simple ideas beget our greatest works.

Swiss chemist Paracelsus wrote: "Thoughts are free and are subject to no rule. On them rests the freedom of man, and they tower above the light ofnature, create a new heaven, a new firmament, a new source of energy from which new arts flow."

  • Writer Blaise Pascal maintained: "Man's greatness lies in the power of thought."
  • Philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: "Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man."
I could name at least 100 other writers who have expressed similar thoughts about idea generation. Thoughts about thoughts are not confined to authors, poets, dignitaries, or intellectuals. As a student I read and was inspired by this in William Hazlitt's early-19th-century writings Table Talk: "Great thoughts reduced to a practice become great acts." Great quotations stimulate the heartbeat. But great thoughts stimulate the mind and grow ideas. Mortimer J. Adler, one of the best thinkers of recent times, once engaged in an unusual list-making project. He spent eight years and studied 700 subject areas to find the answer to the questions "What is an idea?" and "What are the truly great ideas of our time?" Adler came up with 102 great ideas, which he called "the irreducible minimum." His list included Liberty, Justice, Labor, Life, Death, Love, Man, Woman, Opinion, Philosophy, Progress, Religion, Truth, War, Peace, Wealth, Will, Wisdom, World, and 83 similarly all-embracing ideas. While I will not argue with Adler's choice of humankind's greatest ideas, I prefer to be more specific -- and tangible -- in my definition of great ideas. For manufacturing executives, my list would start with the idea called "machines." Machines are a basic element in the human heritage and its genius for invention. Five simple machines made it possible to convert natural energy such as water, wind, and steam into useful energy . . . to pack the power of 400 horses under the hood of an automobile . . . to channel the awesome power of Niagara Falls into generating electricity . . . to cram the destructive power of 24 million tons of TNT into a single bomb . . . to move mountains . . . and to turn wheels that allow us to drive a thousand miles in the same time it takes to hike 30. My list begins with five devices: the lever, the wheel and axle, the pulley, the inclined plane, and the screw. These devices, while they do not meet the dictionary definition of a machine because they do not have "two or more parts," are, in fact, "simple machines." As detachable extensions of the human body, they extend, supplement, and multiply the function of our arms. They led to the invention of the cart, the water wheel, the steam engine, the automobile, the airplane, and the spaceship. The inventors of the lever, the wheel and axle, the pulley, the inclined plane, and the screw are unknown. But the marvels they made possible remind us of their influence on our lives today:
  • The longest bridge in the world is the Akashi Kaikyo in Japan, which spans 6,529 ft.
  • The Great Wall of China stretches nearly 4,000 miles and has an average measurement of 25 ft high, 12 ft wide at its top, and 15 to 30 ft wide at its base.
  • One of the longest railroads in the worldis the Trans-Siberian in Russia. It extends an awesome 5,864 miles.
  • At 33.46 miles, the longest rail tunnel in the world is the Seikan Undersea Tunnel in Japan. Without the lever, the wheel and axle, the pulley, the inclined plane, and the screw, these world-class marvels would not have been possible. Nor would the printing press, the bulldozer, the computer, or the electric light bulb.
It's true that our lives are what our ideas make them. But it's equally true that our ideas are what our lives make them. Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Media Inc., anIWcontributing editor, and the author of the recently published bookManagement Rhymes and Reason. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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