Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 30:   1776

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 30.

Today, we'll visit colonial America. 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 mood of colonial America was one of confidence, self-assurance, and a passionate belief in freedom. For me it's contained in an image from the Summer of 1790 -- the sight of John Fitch's steamboat moving earnestly up the Delaware River propelled by an array of Indian canoe paddles. Those paddles boldly proclaimed Fitch's amateur-but-functional freedom from any engineering tradition.

We have to understand the intensity of the colonial impulse to be free to understand colonial technology and innovation. The word freedom was much used, and it swept in more than just political independence from England. It also included cultural freedom from Europe. The first significant American poet, Barlow, who repeatedly asserted our cultural independence, brashly called America a theatre for the display of merit of every kind.

Sometimes this impulse toward freedom was downright arrogant. A typical anonymous Revolutionary War song -- set to the skirl of fife and drum -- ends with the lines:

And we'll march up the Heav'nly streets,
And ground our arms at Jesus' feet.
Other times it resulted in simple expressions of pleasure, as in Francis Hopkinson's widely-sung lilting melody, My Days Have Been so Wondrous Free. But in either case, the direct, innocent, home-made, and somehow completely engaging quality of it captures our imaginations. It's strong, affecting, and completely amateur.

Revolutionary America does that to you again and again. You see Jefferson's mansion at Monticello, of which art historian Kenneth Clark says:

He had to invent a great deal of it himself ... Doors that open as one approaches them, a clock that tells the days of the week, a bed so placed that one gets out of it into either of two rooms -- all this suggests the quirky ingenuity of a creative man working alone outside any accepted body of tradition.
You find self-taught Ben Franklin providing the world with really important and permanent insights into the nature of electricity. You discover a small band of home-grown intellectuals inventing a government of and by their people.

The engineering of this new land had the mind-set of people who knew that they could do whatever they wanted to do and do it better than -- and without reference to -- what had been done before. Whether it was designing the perfect capital city, building the Erie canal, or marching their armies "right up the heav'nly street" -- they knew that nothing was beyond them.

The worm of self-doubt afflicts so much of our technology today. But it was not to be found among these people. With clear, childlike self-assurance, they really did do the impossible.

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

(Theme music)


This episode is based on fragments of many sources. See, for example, Silverman, K., A Cultural History of the American Revolution: PAINTING, MUSIC, LITERATURE and the THEATRE in the Colonies and the United States from the Treaty of Paris to the Inauguration of George Washington, 1763-1789. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

This episode has been revised as Episode 1365.


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

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