Today, our appetite is too large to feed. 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 University of Washington
Library looks like an unfinished Gothic cathedral.
Inside are the stumps of huge steel piers. They
were meant to hold a great spire. The library was
to be a cathedral to books and knowledge. Soberer
heads intervened before we finished this academic
Notre Dame. We never built the great spire. Since
then the Library has burrowed into a warren of
basements and low lying buildings, instead.
A librarian shows me an exhibit he recently
mounted. He called it, Unbuilt Washington. It picks
up the theme of unresolved dreams. An eerie parade
of unfinished designs marches through it. We see
city transport systems, gold and copper mines, oil
wells, great canal systems, and the Boeing
Most of the designs were serious. A few were just
shell games to trap unwary investors. Others --
like the unbuilt spire above me -- could yet rise
in reality, some day.
I'm awed by the daring of these designs. In 1916,
called for a 30 mile highway tunnel under the
Cascade Mountains. It would've been three times
longer than anything built for years to come. We
were just starting to drive cars in 1916. Yet we
already wanted a road under the mountains. The
sheer magnitude of that one catches our breath.
A 1950 headline says the plan to build a bridge
across Puget Sound is nearing reality. By 1966, a
Highway Department study proclaims that such a
bridge is feasible. It also points out that we
could drill a tunnel under the Sound, instead.
Finally, I see! This exhibit is no joke about human
folly. It's a celebration of all that might have
been. Consider what isn't in the exhibit. A
concrete floating bridge, all the way across Lake
Washington, seems no less mad. The reason it's not
there is that two of them have already been built.
America teems with finished works, crazier than
anything here. The dream of cutting a 400 mile
canal across New York in 1817 was far more bizarre.
Yet we built the Erie Canal anyway.
So I walk away from the library under a gray
drizzle. I glance back over my shoulder. That great
spire rises in the mists of my imagination. It is
beautiful. Never mind that it's only a dream. It
reminds me that dreams are the great engines that
ultimately forge realities. If our reach never
exceeded the thing we were sure to grasp, our
technology -- and our lives -- would be poor
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Two people provided material for this episode. They
were Richard Engeman, Photographs and Graphics
Librarian, and Carla Rickerson, Pacific Northwest
Librarian, University of Washington Special
Collections. Mr. Engeman mounted the special exhibit.
He called it, Unbuilt Washington: A Century of
Unrealized Plans, Grand Visions, Imaginary Buildings,
and a Few Frauds. (I am grateful to Pat Bozeman, Head
of Special Collections, UH Library, for putting me in
touch with this source.)
Chittenden, H.M., A 30-Mile Railway Tunnel Under
the Cascade Mountains. Engineering
News, Nov. 16, 1916, 26 pages.
Cross-Sound Transportation Study. Wash. State
Dept. of Highways. January 1966.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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