Today, birch-bark canoes. 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 first Europeans in the Western
hemisphere had only to look around them to find new ways
of doing things. For example, North America has a vast
network of lakes and rivers, and Native Americans had
created the Indian canoe to make use of that
Now and then we find a technology that does much more
than just catch on. Some ideas are so right that
people improve them until they fit their purpose
perfectly and finally accept almost no further
improvement. The Indian canoe is one such technology.
Minnesota, my childhood home, is called the Land of
10,000 Lakes, and all those lakes have canoes on
them. Nowadays, most are made of aluminum or fiberglass,
with polystyrene floats in the bow and stern. But their
form is still identical with the Indian birch-bark canoe.
Native Americans kept little that we can call written
records, and, since canoes were completely biodegradable,
we have no archaeological remains either. Our earliest
records of canoes are sketches left by the first European
explorers. They show this ancient craft only fluctuating
about one nearly perfect design.
Canoes are shallow-draft boats whose delicate shape has
much in common with Viking ships. One advantage over a
rowboat is that the paddler faces the direction of
travel. Most canoes were small, light, and fast -- meant
to carry a few people rapidly over our rivers and lakes.
The Iroquois built big thirty-foot-long freight-carrying
canoes that held 18 passengers or a ton of merchandise.
Emptied, even those canoes could be portaged by just
The old canoes had tough light wooden frames with a skin
of bark, usually birch. Sometimes the bark was put on in
one piece and pleated to take up slack as it was
contoured. Sometimes it was sewn in sections and caulked
with spruce gum. Material selection, sewing, binding, and
carving were all sophisticated. Designs varied among
tribes, according to local conditions. Even kayaks in the far North , covered with
animal skin instead of bark, reflected the same
underlying principles of shape and propulsion.
Longfellow, fascinated by this art, devoted a whole
chapter of his Song of Hiawatha to Hiawatha's
building of a canoe.
I a light canoe will build me,
Build a swift Cheemaun for sailing,
That shall float upon the river,
Like a yellow leaf in Autumn,
Like a yellow water lily!
Now and then, we reach a sort of dead-end functional
perfection. That's far from true of our new electronic
media. But it is true of most commonplace technology that
we've accepted. By 1840 we'd created a style of wooden
house construction in North America that changes little
in a high-tech world. Our automobiles have long since
ceased to change radically from year to year.
And, like the automobile, the design of the North
American Indian canoe is one we tinker with but do not
alter radically. It is an American icon precisely because
it has reached a point that appears to defy improvement.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.