Today, after Lewis and Clark. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The closer I look at the
Lewis and Clark expedition, the more it becomes two
different things. It reflected the America of the
time, it was closely tied to Jefferson's
presidency, and it immediately began opening up the
West. But, on the two-and-a-half-year journey
itself, the group entered a world apart -- an
unknown world where the explorers depended
completely on one another. They were infinitely
far from life back in the States.
They set out in 1804 as a military unit, with
Captain Lewis, Lieutenant Clark, three sergeants, a
corporal, 33 privates, eleven civilians, and
Clark's slave, York. Many were part Indian. All but
Sergeant Floyd, who'd died of a burst appendix,
spent the first winter with Mandan Indians. There
they picked up an interpreter along with his
teenage Indian wife Sacagawea and an infant son.
By then, the group had bonded in a unique way. The
scholarly and depressive Lewis and the outgoing
Clark led as one person, setting a pattern of
concord. Some military discipline was meted out for
offenses like raiding the liquor supply. But after
a few months it was not needed again.
By the time the second winter closed in,
they'd reached the Pacific Ocean. There they had to
decide whether to winter-over on what's now the
Washington side of the Columbia River, or cross to
the Oregon side, or go back up to the mouth of the
Sandy River. Winter would be hard, and this was a
The Oregon Coast (photo by John
Historian Stephen Ambrose sees what happened next
as the revelatory moment in the whole expedition --
a kind of time warp into a distant American future.
Lewis and Clark laid out the pros and cons, then
called for a vote. The slave York and the
Indian woman Sacagawea were included in the vote as
a matter of course. America would still be trying
to catch up with that act well into the twentieth
century. It really was an astonishing thing.
All but Sergeant Floyd returned safely. But Lewis
lived only three more years before he fell into a
deep depression and took his own life. Clark served
first as governor of the Missouri Territory, then
as Superintendent of Indian Affairs. He cared for
Sacagawea's son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, while
the boy went to school in Missouri. After York
badgered Clark for five years, Clark freed him and
set him up in the drayage business.
But slavery worsened until we had to fight a Civil
War to end it. And we systematically destroyed the
very Indians without whose help the expedition
wouldn't've made it. It all seemed to go bad; yet
the expedition had left us with an ideal
-- of courage, self-sacrifice, cooperation -- even
the ideal of a classless society.
If we seemed to lose much of that impetus in the
years that followed, we've kept struggling to
regain it. The Lewis and Clark expedition left us
with an embodiment of the America we want to be.
And that lingers. It still points the way, two
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
This episode is derived from a talk that I prepared
for a screening of: the IMAX film, Lewis &
Clark: Great Journey West. National Geographic
I have been informed by many of the books written
about Lewis and Clark. But the journals themselves
are of primary importance. See, e.g.: The
Journals of Lewis and Clark. (Frank Bergon,
ed.) New York: Penguin Books, 1989.
I also highly recommend the TV miniseries:
Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of
Discovery, Discovery TV, 1997.
For biographical information on every person in the
Image of Lewis and Clark from an 1810 French
account of their journey:
Voyage des capitaines Lewis et Clarke
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.