The Body of Knowledge: Use It or Lose It
Albert Einstein once said that the true sign of intelligence is not
knowledge but imagination. Contemplating this, our thinking should bring us to
the further awareness that intelligence and knowledge are two galaxies, separate
yet linked in a unique way.
As near as we can tell,
what sets humans apart from the copious other fauna that populates our planet
is our awareness of being. We’re sentient. We are aware of our selves, of the
past of humankind (history) and of a future pending. As near as human and
animal anthropologists can determine, we’re unique.
Einstein projects is probably as important a defining human quality: the
capability of imagining an alternative to our instinctual knowledge. Imagination
couples our intelligence and knowledge, producing a new solution.
People who have strong capabilities in this area quest towards
the high arc of humanity. They are desirable and valuable in just about every
circumstance. For the crass amongst us, this makes them more marketable.
First, let’s clarify this knowledge issue. Humanity has been
exploring the world, the forces in that world and the human dynamics that
create our social universe since cogent thought began. Remember that great
opening scene in “2001” in which the simians use a bone as a weapon? Maybe that’s
when cogent thought began (not in the movie but in that long-ago time).
The continuous exploration that began so long ago has produced
knowledge. At some point this moved into verbal and, as civilization advanced, written
form, so that it could be passed more accurately through generations. We hope the
process will continue until the core of the last mystery is resolved and annotated.
Most of us spend our cognitive time and energy using the body
of knowledge; but few addto it. To
do that, we must go where no man has gone before and enter the unexplored
country. How? Via that imagination thing we were talking about, and using our
How often in tech history have we seen an
item, a tiny clue emerge — yet a corresponding imaginative inspiration eludes
us? Edison’s crew, trying to alleviate the darkening of the insides of early
light bulbs, added a third element in the envelope, hoping to attract the
carbon dust. They found a current flow on this wire but didn’t know what to make
of “the Edison effect.” A few years later, DeForest imagined a use, the triode
tube, and launched our electronic communication industry.
There is a middle ground between the poles of intelligence and knowledge,
and that is innovation. You use our body of knowledge in a novel, imaginative
way — hopefully so novel in application as to be useful to you and others, and
you receive recognition for it. Sometimes your idea becomes the standard design
You’ve seen barrels on the highway, usually
made of recycled plastic, that provide a de-acceleration phalanx ahead of
immovable objects to avert a deadly impact. These are called Fitch barriers;
they were an innovation by a British engineer (a distant relative), and are now
the standard solution for ameliorating the catastrophe of a dead stop at high
We’ve all imagined a few such designs; they might
run the gamut from extremely innovative (perhaps patentable) to merely useful
(these fall into the “attaboy” category). But did we add to the body of
knowledge? No. Innovation is as close as most of us gnother axiom: “Knowledge
is power.” I have always felt that the more you know, the better your
decisions. For us radio tech types, these decisions can take many forms, as
distinct as fast precise troubleshooting or in the area of engineering judgments
about how best to proceed on a cost basis.
People ask me
why I charge so much as a consulting engineer. My favorite response is from
Werner Heisenberg, author of the Uncertainty Principle: “My definition of an
expert (read: consulting engineer) is
someone who knows the most expensive mistakes in their field and how to avoid
them.” Look at this as a form of “knowledge is power.”
minimum, knowledge can enrich you on multiple levels. An apocryphal story is attributed
to an experience of Charles Steinmetz, who in his time conquered physical
challenges (he was a dwarf with related health issues), prejudice (he was an
immigrant, essentially a refugee) and jealousy (others envied his stunning innovative
intellect). Steinmetz had an extraordinary career in industry, mainly at GE, pioneering
alternating current technology. Occasionally his work included consultant
During his GE period, so the story goes,
Henry Ford had a technical problem on a production line in Dearborn on which
Steinmetz had provided design input. The line was stalled and the factory not
producing. Steinmetz was called in to “consult.” After a few days of inspection,
he found the problem in an alternator and noted the location with a chalk mark.
After correction work, the line got going again.
legend continues that he sent Ford an invoice for $10,000, a lot of money at
this time. Reportedly Ford was outraged at the amount for such a short period
of investigation and demanded an itemization, hoping to chagrin Steinmetz into
Steinmetz response was, essentially: One
dollar for identifying the problem area with chalk and $9,999 for knowing what
the problem was.
Knowledge is sometimes power you can
take to the bank.
So hopefully this meandering monograph
will bring to the forefront of your thinking that you should not just
accumulate knowledge from reading all those “Books by the Bed,” or lock yourself into a single
set of standard solutions to get along,
be most human, saddle up your high intelligence horse, get in
the dreamy saddle and achieve your highest potential by imagining, speculating,
Now’s a great time to start. Your
contribution to the body of knowledge awaits.
S. Fitch, P.E., W2IPI, is a registered professional consultant engineer,
broadcast consultant, licensed master electrical contractor, former radio
station owner and former radio/TV director of engineering. He writes the
columns Certification Corner in Radio World Engineering Extra and Milestones
in Radio World.