Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1960:
INVENTING SPEED

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we invent speed. 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.

In 1800 we could move on land with the speed of a horse, or on sea with the speed of a sailboat. For a few minutes, a human being might outrun either one, but that was it. Yet, by 1907 a Stanley Steamer had reached the astonishing speed of 150 miles an hour.

We've talked and read so much about the invention of locomotives, automobiles, airplanes -- always focusing upon this technology or that, rather that on what was really being invented. What we were really doing was serving the human craving behind all the machinery. For this was the century in which we invented speed.

By 1800, we'd experienced significant speeds only in short bursts -- diving, swinging on a rope. The prime metaphor for speed was the horse. In the mid-1800s, poet Bayard Taylor wrote,

From the desert I came to thee
On a stallion shod with fire,
And the winds are left behind
In the speed of my desire.

But even the horse had merely teased us. A horse might taunt us with forty miles an hour, but only for a minute or two at a time.

Then the steam engine: It had evolved throughout the eighteenth century before Watt began improving its power-to-weight ratio to the point that it might actually fit in a vehicle. At last, we had a power source that might sustain the experience of speed.

Watt wanted no part of powered vehicles. But, if speed didn't catch his fancy, it tempted others. Since the largest existing vehicles were ships, several functioning steamboats were actually made using bulky pre-Watt engines.

When Fulton finally put a commercial Watt engine in a boat, the game was afoot. And, even before Fulton, steam-driven cars had been made. Richard Trevithick began building steam cars, then turned to the steam locomotive. He publicly demonstrated a small working steam railroad in London, in 1808 -- the year after Fulton's first steamboat. And serious aerial experimentalists began devising both balloons and airplanes to be powered by steam.

Finally, in 1844, artist William Turner captured this impulse, this urge, with a fine metaphor. His painting Rain, Steam, and Speed is abstract. A railroad train hurtles across a bridge in a storm. We squint through the slanting rain to see it. The engine appears to be a machine before its time -- an anticipation of things to come. The painting implies speed yet to be realized.

That same year, the American diarist Philip Hone wrote,

By and by we shall have balloons pass over to London between sun and sun. Oh for the good old days of heavy post-coaches and speed at the rate of six miles an hour!

And Aldous Huxley wrote, "Speed provides the one genuinely modern pleasure."

So the coming of speed frightened some; elated others. What we invented in the nineteenth century was more than the sum of the parts. Not trains, not planes, not airplanes, but the all of them. It was speed -- pure, hedonistic, and inexorable speed.

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

(Theme music)


The components of this episode are all matters that are treated in other episodes. The poem by Bayard Taylor (1825-1878) is Stanza 1 of his Bedouin Song. The Aldous Huxley quote is from his Music At Night. And the Philip Hone diary entry is from Nov. 18, 1844. As we entered the twentieth century, Our fixation on speed went all the way. Arthur Buller wrote in the Dec. 19, 1923, issue of Punch,
There was a young lady named knight,
Whose speed was far faster than light;
      She set out one day
      In a relative way
And returned on the previous night.


Cazin's 'Aeolypile'

The very first figure in Achille Cazin's book on heat, La Chaleur. (Paris: Librairie Hachette et Cie 1866/1877), dramatizes rising the 19th century fixation on speed.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H. Lienhard.