Today, a contemporary look at power technology, 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 created them.
The Rev. Dionysius Lardner
wrote technical handbooks in the early 1800s. His
Popular Lectures on the Steam Engine
came out in 1828 -- about 40 years after James Watt
had developed his new steam engine. Lardner's book
rapidly went through a series of English and
American editions. By 1836 he was dealing with
everything from the availability of coal to rules
for railway investors.
So what do you suppose Lardner had to say about the
impact of the new engines? He showed some real
vision, but he combined it with the same optimistic
short-sightedness we see all around us today. He
began by dramatizing the new engines. He said:
In a [recent] report it was announced that a
steam engine ... erected ... in Cornwall, had
raised 125 millions of pounds, 1 foot high, with a
bushel of coals. ... The great pyramid of Egypt
[weighs 13 billion] lbs. To construct it cost the
labour of 100,000 men for 20 years. [Today it
could] be raised ... by the combustion of 479 tons
That's very impressive, but what about rising coal
consumption? He tries to calm people's worries:
The enormous consumption of coals in the arts
and manufactures, and in steam navigation, has
excited the fears of ... exhaustion of our mines.
These apprehensions, however, may be allayed by the
assurance [of] the highest mining and geological
authorities, that the coal fields of Northumberland
and Durham alone are sufficient to supply [the
present demand] for 1700 years, and ... the great
coal basin of South Wales will ... supply the same
demand for 2000 years longer.
Those reserves do little today to satisfy England's
energy needs -- never mind the rest of the
energy-hungry world. But Lardner's failure to
recognize our constant craving for more is all too
familiar. So is his sure faith that progress will
keep us out of trouble. His final assurance is one
you've heard in discussions of population, energy,
pollution, and every other problem that rises out
of modern consumption:
... in speculations like these, the ...
progress of improvement and discovery ought not to
be overlooked. ... Philosophy already directs her
finger at sources of inexhaustible power. ... We
are on the eve of mechanical discoveries still
greater than any which have yet appeared.
If Lardner underestimated our appetites, he
correctly saw that human ingenuity will keep
finding ways to meet those appetites longer than we
may think. The problem, of course, is that
ingenuity will keep bailing us out, right up to
that one last time -- when it fails to bail us out.
And if we wait 'til then, we'll be in for worse
trouble than we ever dreamt.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Lardner, The Rev. D., Popular Lectures on THE
STEAM ENGINE, in which its Construction and Operation
are familiarly Explained; with an Historical Sketch
of its Invention and Progressive Improvement.
New York: Elam Bliss, 1828.
Lardner, The Rev. D., The Steam Engine
Familiarly Explained and Illustrated ...
etc. Philadelphia: E. L. Carey & A.
This is a new version of an earlier program,
Engines Episode 13.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Episode | Search Episodes |