Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 270:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 270.

Today, imagination glints from the ocean floor. 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

Did you see the 1976 movie, The Deep? Jacqueline Bisset and Nick Nolte starred in that story about a shipwreck. If you saw it, you didn't forget the opening scene. Jacqueline Bisset, in scuba gear, probed through a crack in the hull with a stick, trying to grasp a glittery object. Then, suddenly, an unseen moray eel seized the stick from within and very nearly took her arm along with it. It was a very frightening scene. It was claustrophobic. An unknown, unexpected assailant lashed out from the mysterious hulk and caught us all on our blind side.

When I saw the movie, I thought I'd seen a well-made underwater set. But not so. That fictional eel attacked Jacqueline Bisset from inside the hull of a very real ship, the RMS Rhone.

The Rhone was built in London in 1865. It was a steam packet -- the new transatlantic carrier. This one was 300 feet long and a little under 3000 tons -- one of the propeller-driven steamships that had started carrying mail, passengers, and freight across the Atlantic. They still carried some sail, but they were sleek, trim, and fast. They really ranked among the many iron-built masterpieces of the Victorian imagination.

The Rhone anchored off the Virgin Islands in October 1867 -- on its way to South America. Suddenly, the very bottom seemed to fall out of its barometer. The great Queen Mother of all storms was closing in on it. The Rhone fled for open waters to ride out the gale. But the storm came on too quickly. It was the worst storm ever recorded in that area. The Rhone was soon steaming into a terrible wind under full power in a desperate attempt to keep from being blown onto Black Rock Point.

Then cold water flooded in on her overheated boilers. One of them exploded and ripped the ship open. Down it went. 173 people were killed by the explosion, by drowning, and by sharks. Only twenty-four lived to tell about it.

When the actors went down into the old hulk, the long smooth lines still loomed up from the murky waters. The modern screw propeller still lies there, fractured where it struck bottom. We gaze down and realize that we're looking at the embryo of the modern steamship.

Huge moray eels do inhabit the hulk, but they're disinclined to bother human beings. Yet we should give the movie-maker's imagination some rope -- as it reaches out to this eerie shadow of the 19th-century imagination. Although, in the end, the movie-making imagination is hardly a match for this remarkable old hulk.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Morris, K. and Rowlands, P., Exploring Shipwrecks. New York: Gallery Books, 1988, pp. 38-61.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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