Today, we meet the ghost of a technology past. 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 Monitor and
Merrimack fought in 1862, about a year
after we began our terrible Civil War. The South
had to scuttle the Merrimack when they
retreated from Norfolk, and the
Monitor sank in a storm off North
Carolina. But the Union made a series of
Monitor clones. They made good use of
them during the rest of the Civil War, and they
kept right on cloning it up to the First World War.
However, it was a radical new design. In 1861, the
Union wasn't about to put all her eggs in that
Even before the Monitor, the Union
tried to gain control of the Mississippi Basin by
building a set of less radical ironclad gunboats.
They were 150 feet long with a six-foot draft. They
were driven by an interior paddle. The outside was
jacketed with 122 tons of 2½-inch iron
plate. They didn't have the Monitor's
modern gun turret, and they presented a slightly
higher profile. Outwardly they looked more like the
One of these boats, the Cairo, was
launched in January 1862. For 11 months it saw
action up and down the rivers, but nothing of real
military importance. Then it struck a Confederate
mine in the Yazoo River, just above the Mississippi
near Vicksburg. It sank in shallow water, and its
crew escaped. Its smokestacks stuck above the
surface, and the Union forces tore them off so the
South couldn't find the wreck and salvage it. River
mud soon filled in what was left, and there it lay
for a century.
Civil-War historians went looking for the
Cairo in the late 1950s, and they
found it, right there in the mud. A restoration was
organized, and the last of it was pulled to the
surface by the end of 1964. The remains of the
Cairo provided a rich view of
Civil-War America. Here lay a river warship, armed,
primed, and ready for combat, just as it had been.
But more important was the wonderful picture it
gave us of mid-19th-century life: boots, combs,
photographs, medical instruments -- all the
commonplace items that reveal the quality and
character of yesterday's life.
You can see the reconstructed Cairo at
the Vicksburg National Military Park. It's a fine
example of a sidetrack in creating the technology
of modern naval slaughter. The rivers weren't to be
major battlefields of the future. And, unlike the
Monitor , which gave future navies the
turret gun, it made no offer to change war at sea.
It is merely a byroad in military history. But it
gives us a look at human ingenuity which, quite
apart from either its purpose or its lack of
influence, is beautiful and exciting. You see the
sophisticated form, structure, engines, and drive
system -- you see a recollection of the
19th-century mind running free.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds