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
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
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
... 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
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.
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
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 © 1988-2018 by John H.