Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1420:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1420.

Today, we ride 568 feet uphill in a barge. 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 storm rises over central New York, and a ferryman trudges beside his mule, hauling a barge through the Erie Canal. He sings:

Oh the Er-i-e is a-rising
And the liquor is getting low
And I scarcely think
We'll get a drink
'Til we get to Buffalo.

The Erie Canal is deeply grooved in our national awareness, and it was a marvel. Four of the Great Lakes, Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Erie, all lie above Niagara Falls, and they form a huge inland waterway with access to thousands of miles of shoreline. It is a waterway that touches Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, as well as New York. For our new country to be joined together, East Coast commerce had to gain access to this waterway.

But the inland port of Buffalo, New York, at the east end of Lake Erie, is three hundred and sixty-three miles from Albany on the Hudson River. Worse than that, Lake Erie lies 568 feet above the Hudson River. Connecting the two ends with a canal was like no engineering task that'd ever been done.

In 1801 Thomas Jefferson appointed Swiss emigrant Albert Gallatin as Secretary of the Treasury. It was Gallatin who first developed a systematic plan to build a giant network of canals, including one between Lake Erie and the Hudson. In 1810 De Witt Clinton, mayor of New York City, picked up the idea. His support for the project got him elected governor of New York by a landslide in 1817. Construction of what was to be, by far, the longest canal ever built (outside of China. See note below*.) ceremoniously began on the Fourth of July that year.

The task took eight years and seven million dollars to finish. It required 83 locks, an 800-foot aqueduct to carry shipping over the Mohawk River, and countless other innovations! Yet the four principal engineers who built it had never seen a canal. Most early American technology was done by amateurs whose zeal and self-assurance seemed to outreach reason. But the Erie Canal's magnitude still put it in a class by itself.

The effect of the Erie Canal on this country was stunning. Cargo that'd cost $100 a ton and taken two weeks to carry by road could now be moved at $10 a ton in three and a half days. Horses and mules drew barges through the canal in end-to-end fifteen-mile shifts. And the ferryman sang his familiar song

I've got an old mule, her name is Sal,
Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal.
She's a good old worker and a good old pal,
Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal

The Canal completed one of Thomas Jefferson's dreams. It was a task that should have been beyond the engineers who built it, but they simply did not appreciate that fact.

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

(Theme music)

Tarkov, J., Engineering the Erie Canal, American Heritage of Invention & Technology, Summer, 1996, pp. 54-57

This is a revised version of Episode 36.

*I am grateful to listener Cameron Laird for catching a gaffe in this episode. The Chinese had built their vast Grand Canal across China between 486 BC and AD 610. It extended 1114 miles -- much longer than the Erie Canal. The Erie Canal was longer than anything else in Europe or the Western hemisphere, however.

[Click on thumbnail for a full-size image. From America Illustrated, 1882]

On the left, an old mule drawn barge. By the time this collection was printed,
the mule was replaced by the early steam tugboat shown on the right.

Route of the Erie Canal and the elevations along it

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H. Lienhard.