Today, we watch a new world being formed. 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.
Lienhard came to America from Switzerland in 1843.
He was just twenty-one and hungry for more than a
life spent farming the foothills of the Glarner
Alps. His accounts of crossing the prairie on foot,
and working with Sutter during the discovery of
gold, are available in several books. But now the
story of his emigration to America has been
published under the title New Worlds to
Seek. And we gain a powerful, intimate look at
the nineteenth-century immigrant experience.
First, we watch as restless discontent drives a lad
out of his small valley and off to a frontier
halfway around the world. Heinrich leaves Le Havre
in steerage on the sailing ship
Narragansett, bound for New Orleans. The
only entertainment is communal singing. During
weeks at sea, he complains as much about shipmates
who sing out of tune as he does about seasickness.
Still, he's a keen observer of human nature and all
things around him.
When the ship reaches Louisiana, a steam-driven tug
hauls it up the delta to New Orleans. Along the
way, passengers get out and chop wood to fuel the
tug. One of the first new-world surprises for
Heinrich is a surprise for us as well. It's the
American axe, the axe you and I know, with its
curved handle and counterweighted head. His eye
immediately lands on the axe that opened up our
Heinrich's odyssey then moves up the Mississippi. He works on a farm
in Illinois. He tries woodcutting in Minnesota.
Always some new trade -- some new survival skill.
Wages run about five dollars a week. A meal costs
fifteen cents, and it's usually just this side of
inedible. It's a world of bed bugs, fever, and
hardship. He's like Candide, trying to wear his
innocence in a world where deceit or violence might
arise any moment.
The most famous stories of this time and place --
Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn --
are anachronistic. They're supposed to be about the
1840s, but Mark Twain describes technologies of a
later and more settled world. Dickens, who visited
the Mississippi in 1840, gives a better picture of
the harsh life.
No one in Heinrich's saga quite knows how to
manage. Everyone struggles as they have to leave
old technologies behind and create new ones for a
new land. No one can quite figure out whom to trust
and whom to fear. The Indians Heinrich meets turn
out not at all like the savages he's heard about.
He's never known black people, and you taste his
surprise when, hopelessly lost, wet, and hungry in
Illinois, it's a black family that finally feeds
We often speak of people going west. It's
quite another matter to relive the process hurdle
by hurdle -- to watch technologies of everyday life
evolve. God, we are told, lives in the details.
Well, here in the vast sweep of detail, we get to
see a new civilization forming with stunning speed
-- and forming out of seeming chaos.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Lienhard, H., New Worlds to Seek. (tr. Raymond
J. Spahn, ed. John C. Abbot, Foreword by John H.
Lienhard IV). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois
University Press, 2000.
Lienhard, H., From St. Louis to Sutter's Fort.
1846. (tr. and ed. by E.G. and E.K. Gudde).
Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959,
Lienhard, H., A Pioneer at Sutter's Fort.
1846-1850: The Adventures of Heinrich Lienhard.
(Translated, edited, and Annotated by M.E. Wilbur).
Los Angeles: the Calafia Society, 1941.
Heinrich Lienhard as young man
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H.