Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 553:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 553.

Today, we take a century to learn that we share our neighbors' trouble. 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.

Los Angeles is a dry city. A hundred thousand people lived there in 1892, and the Los Angeles River supplied their water.

Two self-taught engineers handled Los Angeles's water: The City Engineer, Fred Eaton, and his Water Superintendent, William Mulholland. Mulholland was a hard-as-nails Irishman. He'd gone off to sea as a teen-ager. He'd studied math and engineering on his own while he did manual labor in California. Eaton had spotted him working in a water-supply ditch. He'd liked Mulholland's hard edges, and he pushed him ahead.

Now, in 1892, Eaton told Mulholland that the Los Angeles River could go dry in a bad year. They should look further away for a water supply. Mulholland scoffed, but drought did come. First, he bled the river dry, but by 1904 that became hopeless. So Mulholland went to Eaton. He said: OK, show me where to get more water.

Eaton took him 100 miles into the Owens River Valley. They surveyed the route and found that they could bring water in by gravity alone, without any pumping. They decided to go for it.

First Eaton and his cronies went into Owens Valley posing as ranchers. They bought land from unsuspecting locals. Next they cut a shady deal with the Department of the Interior. One day Owens Valley residents saw that their water had been stolen. Instead of living in a rich agricultural area, they'd become desert dwellers.

So began a great but destructive work of civil engineering. Mulholland scooped up Irish and Cornish workers from the mined-out Comstock Lode. He built dams to power his machinery. In came steam shovels and dirt movers. He siphoned the Owens River through valleys, over mountains, and down into Los Angeles.

He opened the valve in 1910. The Owens River gushed into Los Angeles, and people cheered. But it wasn't enough. A few years later Mulholland had to build a water control dam in Long Valley. This time his old friend Eaton saw him coming. He bought up the land, and he asked a huge sum for it. Their friendship frayed.

But Mulholland finally got that dam, too. And his marvelous aqueduct is still running. If you've been in Los Angeles, you've driven Mulholland Drive. Mulholland was a hero, but he was a warrior hero. Watering Los Angeles has been cutthroat business ever since.

Los Angeles has just begun cooperating to repair the environmental damage its water-taking has done. That damage runs all the way up to Mono Lake. Today, people see that their own fortunes sink when they destroy the world around them. Today, Los Angeles finally realizes that it, and its surroundings, are part of one great organic whole.

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

(Theme music)

Heppenheimer, T.A., The Man Who Made Los Angeles Possible. American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Vol.7, No.1, Spring/Summer 1991, pp. 10-18.

Reinhold, R., Los Angeles Eases Its Grip on Water. New York Times, Saturday, 18, 1991, pp. 1 and 6.

For a biography of Mulholland and photographs see the following website:


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

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