Today, we hurry to use a new technology. 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 French ran the first
working steamboat and flew the first manned balloon
-- both in 1783. But it was 24 years before either
of these wonders was put to use. Then, in 1807,
Robert Fulton gave America a steamboat with all the
ingredients for commercial success. The time was
ripe for Fulton's boat because we'd just doubled
our land mass with the Louisiana Purchase. Now we
owned both sides of the gigantic Mississippi River
So much unexplored and inaccessible land! We had to
find means for navigating the Western rivers. The
big European rivers were all paralleled with roads,
but ours were flanked only with forests. But those
forests could be used to fuel steam engines. And we
had industrial river ports like New York and New
Orleans that could build and maintain heavy
We were suddenly ready for the steam-powered
riverboat. The first one was built in the inland
port of Pittsburgh a scant four years after
Fulton's success. In 1814 the port of New Orleans
was visited by 20 steamboats. In 1834 that number
had risen to 1200.
But there was no EPA or OSHA to protect the public
-- only a driving desire to open up that great
oyster of the American West. The riverboats were very grand,
but they were constantly pushed beyond safety and
beyond their capacities. Their boilers blew up.
They capsized. They went aground on snags and sand
bars. Some called them "Palaces on Paddle-Wheels."
Others spoke of "Swimming Volcanoes." Either way,
they riveted public attention.
Riverboat accidents had killed 4000 people outright
by 1850. That didn't include people missing or
permanently damaged. A survey of the Ohio River
made after the Civil War turned up 129 riverboat
hulks that threatened traffic on the Ohio River
I view those beautiful old boats with a grinding
ambivalence. The West wasn't opened by cautious
people. It was a dangerous place, and we'd still be
tiptoeing into it if we'd shown anything
approaching reasonable caution. I revel in the
madcap technological self-expression that flung our
machines into that wilderness. At the same time I'm
as angered as you are when I see carelessness in
our technology today.
Engineers' lives are immersed in moral issues.
Maybe I like the middle 19th century so much
because the child in me sees how much fun we could
have if we could only ignore the things that
grownups cannot possibly ignore.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds