Today, we give up high-tech for something simpler.
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.
Eighteen-year-old Mark Twain
visited Philadelphia's Fairmount Waterworks in
1853. He wrote his brother Orion about its lovely
park, its marble cupids and fountains, and the
reservoir on the hill. By then this remarkable
engineering feat was forty years old. It was the
first large-scale big-city water-supply system.
Philadelphia began claiming leadership in water
supply soon after the American Revolution. In 1800
Benjamin Latrobe built a set of steam-powered
pumps. It was right downtown, but it kept failing.
So he launched a vast improvement -- a larger
system on the Schuylkill River, just outside town.
It was powered by two, much better, engines.
The new system began delivering water in 1815. Its
main power-supply was a Watt engine -- huge and
impressive, but already dated. The other engine was
more compact. It was made by the American Oliver
Evans. The Watt engine was out of service more
often than not. Evans's smaller engine did the
lion's share of pumping.
It took 3600 cords of wood each year to generate
steam -- more than the city could afford. In 1822
Philadelphia finally put away what'd been the
cutting edge of power technology. They replaced the
engines with a set of eight water wheels.
Charles Dickens visited
the Works in 1840 and said,
Philadelphia is most bountifully provided with
fresh water. [It] is powered and jerked about, and
turned on, and poured off everywhere. The
Waterworks ... are no less ornamental than useful
... The river is dammed ... and forced by its own
power into ... reservoirs, whence the whole city
... is supplied at a ... trifling expense.
Water wheels were medieval machines. Yet
Philadelphia had built a great celebration of modern
technology upon them. Not until Mark Twain's visit
had the first water turbine been added to the system.
The Waterworks kept serving Philadelphia until the
Schuylkill river became polluted, around 1900.
Today, its lovely old buildings still line the
river. The City Art Museum now looms on the hilltop
were the reservoir once was.
It's a beautiful site -- lightly wooded and grassy
-- with the old neoclassical buildings and
sculpture. The dam is still there in the river. But
hidden behind this early American expression of
high technology lurks a message we should all
remember. It is that we must not be dazzled by the
latest and the hottest, when low-tech simplicity
can serve us better.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds