Today, lessons from emerging technologies, under
the worst conditions. 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.
Item in a recent Houston
Chronicle: divers sifting through the wreckage
of the ironclad Union Monitor off Cape
Hatteras had found a flush toilet. At first glance,
a flush toilet aboard a ship may not seem
impressive, but look for a moment at the context.
Before the Civil War, only the rich owned flush
toilets. It'd be a decade before that famous
plumber, Thomas Crapper,
would popularize water closets. And on a ship, you
used either a slop bucket or a hole in the edge of
an upper deck. But most of the low-lying Monitor,
crew included, rode below the waterline. It had a
serious waste-disposal problem: Toilets depend on
gravity, and gravity can do little good below
water. Waste had to be forced out.
The Monitor's designer, Swedish
John Ericsson, had one of the most restlessly
inventive minds of the 19th century. He solved the
problem by creating a kind of mini-torpedo tube.
After a sailor used the toilet, he had to close a
near valve, open a far valve, then actuate a pump
to drive the waste out. The system was fiendishly
tricky to use. One sailor turned the valves in the
wrong sequence and was blown off the seat by a
powerful jet of seawater. Problems like that
bedeviled the Monitor. It was
one-of-a-kind all the way through. From its radical
new screw propellers to its 120-
ton turret, everything was new.
After Monitor's duel with the
Merrimac (called the
Virginia in the South) at Hampton Roads,
both ships were thoroughly
point-blank fire but both survived.
Monitor might've won had her crew
better understood Ericsson's design in another
matter, far more serious than waste removal:
They lost time closing gun ports for protection
while they re-loaded. Late in the battle they
discovered Ericsson's intent: simply rotate the
port away from the enemy during reloading. They had
also been afraid to fire astern for fear shock
waves would split Monitor's boilers.
Ericsson knew that wouldn't happen.
All technologies need time to teach their users,
but there is no time in war. The ironclad
Merrimac was poised to savage the
Union Navy, and only the untested
Monitor could stop it. So she moved in
and stalemated the Confederates when she might've
beaten them. Instead of victory, she left legacies
-- like warship turrets and a flush toilet system
that still serves submarines.
Ericsson was angry that his new technology hadn't
been self-evident. He quit warships and set out to
develop solar and tidal power systems. We've been
even slower to assimilate them. More than any
inventor, Ericsson's ideas came within inches of
succeeding in their own time. Then they continued
to teach us what they could do: the hot air engine,
an early locomotive, screw propeller drives. But we
users are the most important ingredient in any
design. It takes us to complete the circle and make
any invention a part of its world. Turrets,
propellers -- and even flush toilets!
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Divers find flush toilet from Civil War ironclad.
Houston Chronicle, July 28, 1998.
Dekay, J. T., Monitor: the Story of the
Legendary Civil War Iron-clad and the Man Whose
Invention Changed the Course of History. New
York: Walker and Company, 1997.
I am grateful to Jim Bell, KUHF-FM Radio, and Jeff
Fadell, UH Library, for suggesting this topic.
See also Episodes 151,
695, and 795 for more on Ericsson and the
For a fine set of early photographs of Civil War
ironclad gunboats, see the following website:
For details of Ericsson's original Union
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright
© 1988-1998 by John H. Lienhard.
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