Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 13:
DIONYSIUS LARDNER

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we see how an observer looked at power technology 160 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 Reverend Dionysius Lardner wrote technical handbooks in the early 19th century. His book, The STEAM ENGINE Familiarly Explained and Illustrated, was published in 1827. That was forty years after James Watt had changed the world with his wonderful new steam engines. The book includes everything from a history of the steam engine to rules for railway investment speculators.

But when Lardner speaks from the past about the power-producing potential of this new machine, we see real vision combined with the optimism and shortsightedness we share today:

In a [recent] report," he says, "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 of coals.

He goes on to say,

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. Is Lardner's failure to recognize our constant craving for more, familiar? Well, so's what comes next:

... 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.

Lardner so wonderfully combined vision with over-optimism. He certainly underestimated our appetites. But he correctly perceived the somewhat terrifying fact that human ingenuity will do more than we dare dream to meet our frivolous wants as well as our real needs.

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

(Theme music)


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. Hart, 1836.

See Episode 940 for more on these books. Also, see Episode 1180 for a reworked version of this episode.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H. Lienhard.