Today, let's talk about power and the gold rush.
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.
They say gold is power. But
then, in 1776, Matthew Boulton made a related
remark to James Boswell. When Boswell visited the
Boulton-Watt factory, Boulton said to him, "We sell
here, Sir, what all the world desires to have --
In 1848, 72 years later, at Sutter's Fort in
California, my great-grandfather Heinrich was
putting in a vegetable garden for Sutter.
Everything was still labor-intensive. Watt's
power-producing engines had yet to reach this
Sutter had been acting strangely for two weeks. One
evening he showed Heinrich and some other friends a
small bag of yellow metal grains. Could it be gold?
Heinrich described a malleability test and
suggested they try it at the blacksmith's shop.
They cleaned a spoon, heated it, and put a metal
grain in it. When they hammered the hot metal, it
spread out smoothly as gold does and its imitators
do not. Sutter had indeed located gold.
The story leaked out, and the rest is history. But
great-grandpa Heinrich was bothered. Who had really
found the gold, and where? Everyone was making
claims -- Sutter included.
Heinrich finally tracked down the source. One James
Marshall had been trying to build a grain mill, 50
miles back in the mountains. Marshall was testing
the water-diversion system he'd dug to supply his
undershot water wheel. As water sluiced through the
fresh-cut dirt it had exposed the gold nuggets.
We all know about the discovery of gold, but what
of Marshall's water wheel? Marshall had made a deal
with Sutter to build two mills. He'd managed to
finish a sawmill down-river from the fort. Now he
was having trouble with the grain mill. Neither
mill appears to've been very successful. The other
pioneers called them, "Sutter's Follies."
Once there was gold, it was a different story. Now
steam-powered ships turned up in San Francisco Bay
with would-be gold miners. The new Pelton Wheel
water turbines were soon powering California's
mines. One man even tried to build a steam-powered
dirigible to carry passengers from New York to the
Many of the first settlers were European. They were
trying, with only spotty success, to recreate the
simple technologies of medieval Europe. Now, even
before the spring snows of 1849 had melted, power
followed gold in shaping the American West.
Today the gold is gone, while power production has
reached levels that would've been unimaginable in
1849. And what of great-grandpa Heinrich? Well, he
turned his back on power and gold. He retired to
Nauvoo, Illinois, and spent his own small fortune
in gold. He transmuted it into the finest rose
garden in town.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds