Today, old books with a message for the present.
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.
The Reverend Dionysius
Lardner was the British editor of a huge set of
books in the early 1800s. He called his series
The Cabinet Cyclopaedia. A part of this, called
The Cabinet of Natural Philosophy, included
scientific, technical, and general
information of all kinds. He and his writers (who
happened to include Mary Shelley) wrote for a broad
audience of practical readers who would never see
the inside of a university -- titles like A
treatise on Mechanics or Hydrostatics and
Let's look at two editions of his Steam Engine
Familiarly Explained and Illustrated. The one
published in 1824 came out a scant four years after
Richard Trevithick built his first demonstration
steam-locomotive track in London. No railroads in
But the 1836 American edition is quite another
story. By now, railroads were the newest industry.
The technology had quickly crossed the ocean from
Great Britain to America, and the builder Mathias Baldwin had already
created an American rail industry.
Chapters on railroad engines now appear as suddenly
as railroads themselves had done. Lardner even
includes advice to potential investors in
railroads. (The American editor adds a whole new
chapter on steamboats. It has a nice confident ring
to it, since we were ahead of England in putting
our engines on water.)
The chapter on fuel
economy is fascinating. By 1836 fuel
consumption had risen alarmingly, and it demanded
attention. Natural philosophers were hard at the
job of writing the new science of thermodynamics to
explain fuel efficiency. Without it, this chapter
does no better than to recite clumsy rules of
thumb. But that very clumsiness represents need,
and that need is shaping a new science.
Lardner's interest in power resurfaces in his book
Hydrostatics and Pneumatics. When he
speculates on the motive power of liquids and
gases, he clearly responds to the power-hunger of
the nineteenth century. He talks about the old
water wheels. But he seems unaware that -- even as
he wrote -- water wheels were being made obsolete
by the vastly superior water turbine.
Lardner's books use hardly any math. We read
labored verbal arguments that could have been made
so simple with just a little algebra or calculus --
with the mathematics that British and American
engineers were just starting to study in school.
The book on pneumatics treats the new technology of
flight. Hot-air balloons
were fifty years old, and parachutes less than that. The
book dwells on the unsolved problem of navigating
in a balloon -- of taking control of its flight
away from the wind and giving it to a person. The
first dirigible would appear with that capability
just twenty years later.
And so we still learn from these old books. Today,
they remind us of the way our lives are being
changed by some forces we're able to see -- and by
others that are already poised to catch us
completely by surprise.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Lardner, the Rev. Dionysius. Hydrostatics and
Pneumatics. With notes by Benjamin F. Joslin,
M.D. (from The Cabinet of Natural Philosophy, D.
Lardner, ed.). Philadelphia: Carey and Lea, 1832.
Lardner, the Rev. Dionysius. The Steam Engine
Familiarly Explained and Illustrated, with
additions and notes by James Renwick, LL.D.
Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1836.
Lardner, the Rev. Dionysius. Popular Lectures
on the Steam Engine in which its Construction and
Operation are Familiarly Explained ... New
York: Printed for Elam Bliss, 128 Broadway, 1828.
(I do not have a copy of the orginal 1824 edition.)
Lardner, D., and Kater, H. Treatise on
Mechanics. Philadelphia: Carey and Lea, 1831.
This is a greatly revised version of Episode 198.
This remarkable image from the 1836 edition of
The Steam Engine Familiarly ... is found in
the section titled, "Locomotive Engines on Turnpike
Roads." It shows, not a steam locomotive but, rather,
an embryonic idea of the automobile.
Also from the 1836 edition: An early marine engine
and steam boiler.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.