Today, and artist catches history in flight. 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.
Maritime historian Erik
Ronnberg shows us a painting of New York Harbor. It
was done in 1852 by a famous marine artist, Fitz
Hugh Lane. Lane has recorded the busy harbor with
photographic accuracy and a wealth of detail that
early cameras would be unlikely to've captured.
Fifteen vessels are shown clearly and, as we look,
we realize the astonishing variety they represent.
Two sail-driven packets dominate the foreground.
These were the new freighters that'd been developed
for economical runs between Europe and America.
Further back is a conventional three-masted ocean
ship. Scattered in among them are three small
coastal sloops and three kinds of oar-driven boats.
Lane painted this picture 33 years after we'd
first tried to cross the
Atlantic under steam. Steam was still very
young, but it's also very evident here. A third
packet in the rear is almost background. But it's
steam-driven, even though it has two masts with
sail. This ocean-going ship is still driven by
We also see one riverboat. Riverboats had been evolving to fit our vast
inland river system ever since Robert Fulton. In
fact Fulton had soon moved to Pittsburgh to build
steamboats, but they didn't look like this. They'd
only recently reached the form in which they lie so
strongly upon our imagination — the stuff of Mark
Twain, cotton, and gambling along Ole Man River.
Two steam-driven towboats are visible in Lane's
picture, but how different they are from one
another! One is a side-wheeler powered by an old
Watt type of engine. It's like Fulton's first boat.
The other is up-to-date. It's driven by a modern
screw propeller, and it looks a lot like today's
Now and then one of our technologies rolls over. We
see that happening here. Nine years before this
great-grandfather came from Europe on a sailing
ship and crossed the prairie to California on foot.
Two years before this picture, he left on
a steam packet for Panama. Change was that rapid.
By the early twentieth century, you see another
great technological rollover in photos of city
streets. Horse-drawn vehicles of every kind move
along with bicycles and autos driven by both steam
and gasoline. You see them all struggling for
Photos of offices from the mid-1980s reveal an even
more rapid turnover. There we watch the last
typewriters in their brief and hopeless struggle
for survival as the new word-processors
relentlessly move in among them.
So we're lucky to have Lane's picture of New York
Harbor. Rollovers like this are brief once they've
begun. Catching one as it happens is a little like
trying to photograph lightning. Hesitate and we'll
miss the moment completely. New technologies are
aggressive. Once the advantage of any new engine of
our ingenuity is clear, we have only an instant to
click the shutter.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Ronnberg, E.A., Jr., A Few Words About This Picture.
American Heritage of Invention and
Technology, Fall 1988, pp. 14-20.
To view the Fitz Hugh Lane painting, see: http://www.nga.gov/cgi-bin/pimage?83753+0+0
This is a greatly revised version of Episode 193.
Closeup view of the sort of steam/sail vessel that
appears in the background of the Lane painting
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.