Today, America leaves its Eastern beaches. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I'm back from a trip to
Eastern Massachusetts -- that virtual museum of
early American settlement. A large red frame
building in Newburyport has the number 1654 over
its door. That's not the address; it's the year it
was built. Then I notice: this 350-year-old
building is no log cabin; it's a comfortable
An almost-hidden sign on old Route 1, the road to
Boston, says: First Fulling Mill 1643. Out front is
a fake water-driven mill -- an abandoned tourist
attraction. But off in the woods, unmarked, is the
original mill dam, built only 23 years after the
pilgrims landed. It still diverts water from a
stream into the mill race.
European water wheels had been used for 800 years
by 1643. They took on back-breaking human tasks.
Grist mills ground grain. Sawmills cut logs into
boards. Fulling mills pounded wool for hours in hot
soapy water to clean it, remove oils, and
pre-shrink it. Mills had to be a first order of
I'm surrounded by imported technologies and
institutions. In downtown Boston I find another
one. It's the Athenaeum, a lovely private lending
library built in 1807. You can still borrow books
from its collection of 750,000 volumes for an
annual fee of $100. Few Americans today have even
heard of private lending libraries.
These technologies and institutions were indeed
built by people who'd stepped right off the boat.
Just as most machinery for those water mills was
made in England, so too were the institutions of
the new world. Harvard and some of the fine private
academies were audacious -- yet successful --
attempts to recreate English education in the new
What I'm seeing is a beachhead, still equipped with
materiel and ideas from the mother country. The
machinery of civilization would clearly have to
mutate into something new. Education, technology
and government would have to adapt to different
resources, a different climate -- and a wholly new
mix of people.
The colonists who struck off into the West sped
that process. They had to sever the umbilical cord
with Europe and recreate earlier and more primitive
technologies from scratch. They put up log cabins
and tents. They followed herds like early nomads.
They used the services of itinerant doctors, clergy
-- even scholars.
By mid-19th century, we'd created our own unique
replacements for all that I saw last week. We
invented the high-pressure, non-condensing steam
engine -- light and powerful. We built land-grant
public universities in each state. We invented the
public library. In the end we left that beachhead,
and we became America.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds