Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 193:
NEW YORK HARBOR

by John H. Lienhard

Today, a 19th-century artist catches history on the wing. 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.

Maritime historian Erik Ronnberg shows us a painting of New York Harbor. It was done in 1852 by Fitz Hugh Lane, a noted marine artist. It records the busy harbor with photographic accuracy and a wealth of detail that early cameras couldn't have captured. Fifteen vessels are shown clearly, and we suddenly notice that they represent an astonishing variety.

The foreground is dominated by two sail-driven packets. These were the new freighters that had been developed for economical runs between Europe and America. Further back is a conventional three-masted ocean ship. Scattered about are three small coastal sloops and three kinds of oar-driven boats.

Lane painted the picture 28 years after we'd first tried to cross the Atlantic under steam. Steam was still very young, but it strongly obtrudes itself into the picture. We see a third packet that's steam-driven, and we see a riverboat. There are two steam-driven towboats, but how different they are! One's a side-wheeler powered by an old Watt type of engine -- like Fulton's first boat. The other is up-to-date. It's driven by a modern screw-propeller, and it looks a lot like today's tugboats. Finally, in the background, you see one of the new ocean-going steamboats. Even though it carries minimal sail, it's still driven by paddle wheels.

Now and then one of our technologies rolls over. That's what's happening in this picture. Nine years before it was painted, my great-grandfather came from Switzerland on a sailing ship. He crossed the prairie to California on foot before the Gold Rush. Just after the Gold Rush he was able to leave that new land on a steam packet to Panama. The speed of change in the middle 19th century was that rapid.

You see technological rollovers like that in photos of city streets taken sixty years later. Horse-drawn vehicles of every stripe move along with steam and gasoline-driven autos and with a variety of bicycles. Recent photos of offices likewise show the last typewriters in a hopeless struggle for survival alongside the new word-processors.

Nevertheless, we're lucky to have Lane's picture of New York Harbor. Rollovers like this are brief once they've begun. Catching one as it happens is a little like trying to photograph lightning. New technologies are aggressive. Once the advantage of a new technology is clear, last year's engine of our ingenuity seldom lasts very long.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Ronnberg, E.A., Jr., A Few Words About This Picture. American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Fall 1988, pp. 14-20.

For more on the transition from sail to steam, see Episode 31.

To view the Fitz Hugh Lane painting, see: http://www.nga.gov/cgi-bin/pimage?83753+0+0

This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1804.



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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