Parachutes and Sir James Dewar

One of the problems with good language and good ideas is that more than one person can come up with a good thought or idea – honestly, without plagiarizing the idea. Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace both were working, initially independently, on the idea of natural selection and evolution at the same time, and, in fact in July of 1858, both their papers on natural selection were jointly presented to the Linnean Society of London.

Dozens of men were trying to develop the first powered aircraft at the same time as the Wright brothers. And the first mechanical computer, as I’ve noted previously, wasn’t that of Thomas Babbage in 1837 [although the entire simplified analytical engine was never actually constructed in his lifetime], but the Antikythera device of the ancient Greeks, which has been dated to 100-150 B.C., and which was, and is, an ancient mechanical analog computer (as opposed to digital computer) designed to calculate astronomical positions.

Which brings us to parachutes and minds…

Until last week, I’d never heard of Sir James Dewar, perhaps because he was a noted British chemist of the last century and because chemistry was the only general science course I never took in either high school or college. Then, I ran across a quote attributed to Dewar:

“People’s minds are like parachutes. They only function when they are open.”

This took me a bit aback, because, having never read Dewar or even heard of him, some twenty years ago, in writing The Parafaith War, I had one of my characters note:

“Minds, like ancient parachutes, function better when open, but, like fists, they strike harder when closed.”

What I wrote was not quite the same as what Dewar said or wrote, but it was eerie to see a quote so similar when I had thought myself so original. Well, I was original, in the sense that I thought the idea up independently, even if I hadn’t been first, and so far as I know, I was the first to complete the idea in the way I did… and, in the time since I did, American politics have once again demonstrated the effective striking hardness of a closed mind.

Which all goes to show that there’s a certain risk in claiming originality.

By the way, for those as ignorant of Dewar as I was, he was born in 1842 in Scotland and died in 1923, and was a pioneer in the solidification of gases. He invented a special double-walled vacuum flask, now known as a Dewar flask, that facilitated his work in liquefying oxygen and hydrogen. He was also a co-inventor of cordite smokeless explosive powder, and was awarded the Copley Medal, Rumford Medal, Franklin Medal, Albert Medal, and the Lavoisier Medal. Reputedly, he was also a fascinating lecturer.

6 thoughts on “Parachutes and Sir James Dewar”

  1. D Archerd says:

    One of my favorite quotes about music composition which may apply equally to writing is, “Musical genius consists of remembering what you hear and forgetting where you heard it.”

    I’ve seen that parachute quote in numerous instances over the years and can’t recall the attribution to Dewar, so you may have similarly encountered it yourself and subconsciously resurrected it while you were writing The Parafaith War.

    1. Given that I’ve followed the field for as long as I have, and that I was a Navy pilot, with a long-standing interest in aviation and an obviously personal and professional interest in parachutes, I’m fairly certain I’d never seen the quote or a similar reference to it before I wrote what I wrote. After that, of course, I would have had the same reaction as I just did… and since I didn’t…

  2. Joe says:

    We all are reflections of our upbringings. It is therefore unsurprising that so many of us who invent, discover later that others have had the same ideas.

    Independent (re-)invention is most often the norm, which is why I find patents particularly offensive. They enable those that can’t invent to “own” ideas and to prevent others who could and often do reinvent them from using them.

    Trade secrets are a much more moral solution in my view.

    1. James says:

      I’m definitely not a fan of patent law as it appears to be applied in the modern day, however I can appreciate why it was invented.

      Patents are supposed to facilitate innovation by allowing others to more easily build on the patent holder’s original idea.

      I am of the opinion that patents should still exist, but only be applicable for a relatively short period of time. (Maybe just a few years, rather than 20

      1. Joe says:

        In practice, patents rarely serve their purpose: facilitating innovation.

        One rarely thinks “Is there a way of doing x? I’ll look it up in the patent list!”. Instead one has an idea of how to solve it, and perhaps then finds the same idea in a patent, later when sued, or never.

        Secondly, most corporations instruct their employees not to read patents to reduce their legal liability, counteracting any such facilitation.

        Thirdly, corporations’ legal council are now “profit centers” and often only wish to patent things that are easy to prove have been violated. Thus trivial solutions to problems are now patented, not the parts that truly require innovation.

        With respect to shorter patents, I believe copyright is a relevant analogy: it keeps being extended, despite there being little evidence that royalties paid once an author has died will encourage him to create more in his lifetime.

  3. Hugh says:

    With regard to the alleged Dewar quote, attributing it to Thomas Dewar rather than James is probably more accurate, but the year before Thomas was quoted saying it, it had been published without attribution in a number of U.S. newspapers. See

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