Today, we visit Colonial America. 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 mood of Colonial America was a
special mix of self-assurance and a passionate belief in
freedom. For me that mood is embodied in an image from the
spring of 1786. It is the sight of John Fitch's steamboat
laboring earnestly up the Delaware River propelled by an
array of Indian canoe paddles. Twenty-one years before
Fulton, those paddles boldly proclaimed Fitch's amateur but
functional freedom from any canon of engineering design.
To understand colonial technology and invention we need to
understand the intensity of the Colonial impulse to be
free. Freedom was a much-used word that swept in more than
just political independence from England. It included
cultural freedom from Europe. America's first
notable poet, Joel Barlow, repeatedly asserted our cultural
independence. He brashly called America a
"theatre for the display of merit of every kind." Sometimes this impulse
toward freedom was downright arrogant. A typical anonymous
Revolutionary War song, set to the skirl of fife and drum,
ends with the lines:
And we'll march
up the Heav'nly streets,
And ground our arms at Jesus' feet.
Other times it resulted in gentler expressions of the same
sentiment. Francis Hopkinson gave us a widely-sung, lilting
melody with the title, My Days Have Been so Wondrous
Free. But always present was a direct, innocent,
homemade, and somehow completely engaging quality. It
captures our imagination. It is strong and affecting, and
(most important) it is completely amateur.
Again and again the mood of Revolutionary America touches
us with that direct, simple-but-brilliant intensity.
Historian Kenneth Clark visits Jefferson's Monticello, and
He had to invent a great deal of it himself ... . Doors
that open as one approaches them, a clock that tells the
days of the week, a bed so placed that one gets out of it
into either of two rooms -- all this suggests the quirky
ingenuity of a creative man working alone outside any
accepted body of tradition.
We find self-taught Ben Franklin giving us basic insights
into the nature of electricity. We find a small band of
homegrown intellectuals inventing a new kind of government
of and by the people.
The engineering of this new land had the mind-set of people
who knew that they could do whatever they wanted to do.
They knew they could do it better than, and without
reference to, what'd been done before. Whether it was
designing the perfect capital city, building the Erie
Canal, or marching their armies "right up the heavenly street,"
they knew nothing was beyond them.
The worm of self-doubt afflicts so much we do. We've been
to the mountaintop of technological accomplishment. Edison,
Ford, Bell have subsequently come and passed on, leaving us
to feel disconnected from those embryonic years of
That worm did not eat into the heart of the people who
built this country. With clear, childlike self-assurance,
those people quite simply did do the impossible.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
This episode is based on fragments of many sources. See,
for example, Silverman, K., A Cultural History of the
American Revolution: PAINTING, MUSIC, LITERATURE and the
THEATRE in the Colonies and the United States from the
Treaty of Paris to the Inauguration of George Washington,
1763-1789. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.
This is a revised version of Episode
From the 1832 Edinburgh
Fitch's First Steamboat Propelled with Indian Canoe
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright
© 1988-1998 by John H. Lienhard.
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