Today, a 19th-century artist catches history on the
wing. 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 Fitz Hugh Lane, a noted marine
artist. It records the busy harbor with
photographic accuracy and a wealth of detail that
early cameras couldn't have captured. Fifteen
vessels are shown clearly, and we suddenly notice
that they represent an astonishing variety.
The foreground is dominated by two sail-driven
packets. These were the new freighters that had
been developed for economical runs between Europe
and America. Further back is a conventional
three-masted ocean ship. Scattered about are three
small coastal sloops and three kinds of oar-driven
Lane painted the picture 28 years after we'd first
tried to cross the Atlantic under steam. Steam was
still very young, but it strongly obtrudes itself
into the picture. We see a third packet that's
steam-driven, and we see a riverboat. There are two
steam-driven towboats, but how different they are!
One's a side-wheeler powered by an old Watt type of
engine -- 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
tugboats. Finally, in the background, you see one
of the new ocean-going steamboats. Even though it
carries minimal sail, it's still driven by paddle
Now and then one of our technologies rolls over.
That's what's happening in this picture. Nine years
before it was painted, my great-grandfather came
from Switzerland on a sailing ship. He crossed the
prairie to California on foot before the Gold Rush.
Just after the Gold Rush he was able to leave that
new land on a steam packet to Panama. The speed of
change in the middle 19th century was that rapid.
You see technological rollovers like that in photos
of city streets taken sixty years later.
Horse-drawn vehicles of every stripe move along
with steam and gasoline-driven autos and with a
variety of bicycles. Recent photos of offices
likewise show the last typewriters in a hopeless
struggle for survival alongside the new
Nevertheless, 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. New
technologies are aggressive. Once the advantage of
a new technology is clear, last year's engine of
our ingenuity seldom lasts very long.
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.
For more on the transition from sail to steam, see
To view the Fitz Hugh Lane painting, see: https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.84783.html
This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1804.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H.
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