Today, we revel in a wealth of wood. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
North American settlers
found more wood here than they'd ever known.
Millwrights and carpenters had deforested Europe
long since. Here was a vast ocean of trees. What we
were to become, this side of the Atlantic, was
anyone's guess. Only one thing was sure. Our new
life would be carved from wood.
An odd spinoff of all that wood was that it also
made us iron-rich. In the early 1700s we smelted
iron with charcoal. England had iron, but no wood
to reduce it. She'd been using European iron for a
long time. Now she came to us.
If Britannia ruled the waves, she did so in wooden
ships. Shipbuilding ate wood. We didn't supply only
wood. We also supplied finished ships. When the
American Revolution began, one third of the vaunted
English navy was American built.
Still, our technologies weren't very creative, not
yet. We were still infants wed to the technology of
the mother country. Creativity is freedom. It is
independence. And our independence, when we finally
claimed it, had to be shaped in wood.
So it's no surprise that one of our early
technological triumphs was the modern felling axe.
European axes had straight handles. Their blades
had a far more awkward balance.
We evolved the graceful curved handle you and I
know so well. We shifted the blade's center of
gravity. It was a huge improvement. That axe, which
we take for granted, could fell trees three times
as fast. It wrote our American history.
Finally England learned to make coke from English
coal. Coke is what's left when you bake the
volatile materials out of coal. It's almost pure
charcoal. It burns hot and clean. By 1800 England
was producing the finest iron in the world.
We fell behind in iron, but we still had all that
wood. When our railroads went West, we took the
wooden truss bridge to its limits. England kept
building iron bridges. We opened the West with
Our lumber saws were faster, but they wasted far
more sawdust. For us, wood was as free as air. We
perfected wood-shaping tools. We learned to make
interchangeable wooden parts. We even made wooden
clockwork for a time.
We eventually reached childhood's end. We cleared
the land and ran out of free wood. By Japanese or
English standards, we're still wood-rich. But
today, wood is a farm product -- something we
plant, then harvest 20 to 75 years later.
Now we build in plastic and steel. But what we are
was carved from wood, perfumed in sawdust,
seasoned, and varnished. And the underlying grain
of America is still --the grain of wood.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds