Today, we'll go back to Pittsburgh 170 years ago. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Now what was so special about
Pittsburgh and the year 1816? The War of 1812 had
just ended. We'd survived our first 40 years of
independence, and we'd started to see ourselves as a
strong and solvent country. Pittsburgh was a singular
town. It lay across that great natural barrier, the
Allegheny mountains, far from America's population
centers on the Atlantic coast.
It was so important because it was centered in the
Western Pennsylvania coal fields. It's cheaper to
bring iron to coal for smelting than to bring coal to
iron. So Pittsburgh became our major iron producer
soon after the first Western Pennsylvania blast
furnace was set up in 1790. It became our major glass
producer, too, because glass-making also requires a
lot of heat. Between 1810 and 1820 Pittsburgh's
population mushroomed from forty-seven hundred to
more than seven thousand.
The odd thing is that Pittsburgh was so inaccessible!
It sits at the confluence of the Allegheny and
Monongahela rivers, which connect it to the ocean at
New Orleans, over a thousand miles away. It took over
two weeks for a loaded wagon to make the 300-mile
road trip over the mountains to Philadelphia.
Yet in a few years Pittsburgh had acquired three
newspapers, nine churches, three theatres, a piano
maker, five glass factories, three textile mills, a
steam engine factory, 4000 tons of iron processing
per year, two rolling mills, most of our nail
production, and -- no surprise -- a notorious air
Robert Fulton's steamboat patent was only seven years
old in 1816. In that year this inland city launched
three of these gigantic boats to link itself to the
ocean, and they weren't its first. Another boat made
two years earlier in Pittsburgh, and bearing the
unfortunate name of Vesuvius, burned up in New
Orleans in 1816.
These words from an article in the September 3rd
issue of the Pittsburgh Gazette say a
lot about the mood of the place:
Those who first cross the Atlantic in a steam-boat
will be entitled to a great portion of applause. In a
few years we expect such trips will be common ... and
bold will they be who first make a passage to Europe
in a steam-boat.
In fact, the first transatlantic steamboat crossing
was made -- with the help of some sail -- just three
years later, in 1819.
The article ends with a quotation from Homer:
Bold was the man, the first who dared to
in fragile bark, the wild perfidious wave.
That's the mark of a developing civilization --
healthy, adventurous technologies driven by that kind
of awe and excitement.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds