Today, we hunt treasure. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
By now you probably know
about the book Rocket
Boys, or the movie version, October
Sky -- young Homer Hickam setting out to build
his own rocket after Sputnik went up. It was a
wonderful story of the hands-on creative impulse
that drives good technology.
Now another such story, ten years later. Tommy
Thompson emerged out of Defiance, Ohio, with the
same technological verve that'd flown those
rockets. Thompson built his own telephone when he
was eight. In high school, he converted his car so
it'd function on water as well as land.
Gary Kinder tells Thompson's remarkable story in
his book Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea.
But he doesn't begin with Thompson. He begins
instead way back in 1857 with the SS Central
America, a 300-foot steamer driven by two huge
paddle wheels, headed to New York from Panama with
a stop at Havana. It carried 500 people on their
way back from the California gold fields. Some
had lost their shirts. But others were rich, and
the ship was filled with gold.
A hurricane blew in as it passed 200 miles off the
coast of North Carolina. The ship sprang a leak.
For days, the water level rose until the ship sank.
Most of the people died, and the few survivors all
told poignantly terrifying stories.
That much could make a book by itself, but the
adventure really begins back in the present, as
Thompson goes off to study engineering at Ohio
State. He's interested in underwater exploration.
The dean wisely recognizes a rare genius and takes
him under his wing.
Soon Tommy is going where classroom studies would
never have taken him. He cuts his teeth with
treasure hunters off the coast of Florida. But he
sees that they have no systematic methods for
finding and removing treasure. More than that,
they're limited to warm, shallow water where wrecks
Thompson's interest is in deep water, so he looks
for a wreck with a lot of iron in its frame. The
SS Central America fits the bill. Treasure
hunters had looked for it in shallow water, but
that was wishful thinking. Thompson scours
newspapers and letters until he realizes it came to
rest on a ridge running down into the depths below
the coastal shelf. The wreck now lies in 8000 feet
For years young Thompson develops a plan, invents
new deep-water robot technology, convinces backers
to supply the millions of dollars needed for the
work; creates a probability map based on
conflicting accounts of the sinking; fights
predatory searchers encroaching on his site; and,
at last, sees those great iron paddle wheels
emerging on cameras two miles below his ship.
So the story
isn't about finding treasure after all. It's about
a young man gaining an education. The treasure is
an anticlimax to the story of a terrible disaster
turned to gold when Tommy Thompson (like the Rocket
Boys) shows us how it's still possible to create an
impossible goal -- then actually reach it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Kinder, G., Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea.
New York: Vintage Books, 1999.
I am grateful to Dr. Robert Renner, Kelsey-Seybold
Clinic, Houston, for strongly recommending the
The SS Central America had come to rest on a
structure called the Blake Outer Ridge, which runs
eastward down into the deep ocean off Blake
Plateau, which runs along the North Carolina shore.
I am grateful to Amy Huff, UH Library, for locating
a map of that region of the ocean. To see it, click
on MAP (and note that south is
to the left, north to the right.)
(from Ship of Gold in the Deep
Gold Bricks from the SS
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H.