Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2261:
MUSCLE SHOALS

by John H. Lienhard

Today, a 75-mile city. 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.

Congress created the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933. TVA delivered hydroelectric power from the Tennessee River, and it industrialized the vast river valley. The River's headwaters are in east-central Tennessee. It winds down across Tennessee, through northern Alabama, then turns north, cutting through the western tips of Tennessee and Kentucky, to reach the Ohio at Paducah.

TVA's story began fifteen years earlier on a part of the River in Alabama called Muscle Shoals. (Muscle Shoals probably got its name because Indians had to work so hard to canoe upstream in that area.) During WW-I, President Wilson authorized a dam just downstream of Muscle Shoals to help power nitrate plants for munitions. Eighteen thousand workers streamed in to build the factory and dam. The first nitrates were made two weeks after the armistice. The dam, now called Wilson dam, wasn't finished 'til 1924.

In the meantime, Henry Ford had tried to buy the nitrate works and the unfinished dam for five million dollars. Congress knew that was a low-ball offer and balked. So, in 1922, Ford unfurled an over-the-top plan for Muscle Shoals. He would build a 75-mile city along the reservoir. Having shaped the American automobile industry, he would now shape the way Americans lived. Muscle Shoals would become a thin thread of city, in close touch with the countryside along its length.

He would finish Wilson Dam and build more dams upstream. Ford believed that factories and farms should be integrated — that cities were a mistake. A kind of technocratic delirium followed. A Scientific American article detailed Ford's hydroelectric plan and presented a kind of happy-working-peasants picture of the project.

But the editor added a note on the matter. He liked Ford's idea and the author's description. But he was gravely concerned about Ford's unrealistic notion of how the government should fund it.

Ford's friend Edison got on the bandwagon. Land developers, looking to make a killing, closed in on Muscle Shoals — buying up land and cutting it into 25-foot lots. Then Congress, still opposed to the project, killed it.

Ford had, however, sown the seeds of the TVA, which Roosevelt pushed through later. And its centerpiece became another model town design — Norris Village, next to Norris Dam in eastern Tennessee. Of course no one can ever predetermine anything as organic as a city. Norris's ideal layout soon grew back into a more conventional small city.

And Muscle Shoals? Well it incorporated into a town of 727 people in 1923. Now it's a prosperous town of some thirteen thousand. Wilson dam, with its neoclassical design, is a bit of an oddity in the TVA system. And Ford's 75-mile city? Well, it lies off there in the mists of unfulfilled dreams with all the other Utopias that we have, again and again, tried and failed to create.

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

(Theme music)


Addendum, Jan 23, 2014: Listener Dianne Wells writes point out another etymology for the name 'Muscle Shoals.' It is that there was once a significant presence of freshwater mussels in this region, now seriously degraded. Perhaps Muscle is simply a bowdlerization of mussel.

L. McClung, The Seventy-Five Mile City: What Henry Ford Wants to do with Muscle Shoals, and Why He Wants to Do It. Scientific American, Sept. 1922, pp. 156-i57, 213-214. (All images are from this source.)

A. Molella and R. Kargon, Environmental Planning for National Regeneration: Techno-Cities in New Deal America and Nazi Germany. Inventing for the Environment (Arthur Molella and Joyce Bedi, eds.) (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003): pp. 107-129.

For Muscle Shoals, see: http://www.cityofmuscleshoals.com/Default.asp?ID=11

For Norris, TN, see: http://www.tva.gov/heritage/norris/index.htm

For more on TVA, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tennessee_Valley_Authority

For a view of the pre-existing Muscle Shoals region Click on the thumbnail below:
Muscle Shoals








Wilson Dam
Wilson Dam, partially built, in 1922.

Fields surrounding Muscle Shoals
Fields in the Muscle Shoals region.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.