Today, we ask what water witches really are. 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.
A recent New
Yorker article by Carolyn Kraus spun a
complex web around water witching or dowsing. It's
a subject we should face sooner or later. People
have been finding water with forked sticks ever
since Moses brought forth water by smiting a rock
with a rod. Herodotus wrote about dowsing in the
5th century BC. Chinese texts tell of water
witching 4000 years ago. Agricola's famous
15th-century mining text describes it. For millenia
people have believed in something with no rational
Dowsing takes many forms. Some dowsers openly claim
paranormal powers. The best of them say they
neither know nor care how it works, but they're
sure they can find water. The worst wrap their
divining rods in bogus science.
Marine Corps engineers at Camp Le Jeune brought a
dowser in and studied his technique during the Viet
Nam war. They wanted to find enemy tunnels and
hidden arms. The fellow told them that anyone could
master dowsing except "athiests, morons,
disbelievers, or the mentally disturbed." Engineers
reporting back to the Pentagon picked up that
theme. The method, they allowed, could fall into
communist hands; but that would be no problem,
because communists were all athiests.
Since dowsing enjoys some success, scientists
flutter around it. A Freudian psychiatrist tells us
that dowsers seek to penetrate Mother Earth with
the dowsing rod. A physicist looks at certain
glands that seem to have no purpose. Maybe they
respond when underground cavities bend the earth's
magnetic field. Maybe they cause a small muscular
tic in the dowser's upraised arm.
A geologist points out that some people simply
learn the subtle relations between earth's surface
and aquifers below it. A good dowser, they claim,
does what a good geologist does. Maybe the witching
wand just helps him concentrate.
Dowsing may be pure bunk, or it may someday reduce
to human understanding. But it reflects a powerful
craving to find realities outside our
understanding. That's where it's kin to invention.
Pure invention precedes understanding, and it
stands apart from deduction or reason. It's a water
witch of the human mind. Invention means finding
things without knowing quite how we found them.
Dowsing, UFO's, and the other paranormal
whoop-de-do are ways some people try to find the
delicious suprise we all crave. That surprise is
available to us, but it comes from within.
Invention finds water in the desert by creating the
thing we did not expect to find.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds