Today, some old books help us understand the
present. 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 Reverend Dionysius
Lardner was the English editor of a large set of
scientific and technical handbooks in the early
1800s. He called his series The Cabinet of
Natural Philosophy. I have two volumes here
-- The Steam Engine Familiarly Explained and
Illustrated and Hydrostatics and
Pneumatics. Mine are American editions
published a little later -- in the 1830s.
These books show people reacting to radical changes
in technology unfolding right under their noses.
Let's compare the 1824 English edition of Lardner's
steam engine handbook with the 1836 American
The railroad was brand new in 1824. Eight years
later, the chapters on railroad engines -- like the
railroads themselves -- had greatly expanded. The
American editor also added a whole new chapter on
steamboats. It has a nice confident ring to it,
because we were ahead of England in taking our
engines to sea.
The chapter on fuel economy is fascinating. By 1836
fuel consumption had risen alarmingly. It demanded
attention. Natural philosophers were hard at the
job of writing the new science of thermodynamics to
explain fuel efficiency. Without it this chapter
does no better than to recite clumsy rules of
thumb. But that very clumsiness represented need,
and that need was driving the creation of a new
Lardner's interest in power resurfaces in his book
on hydrostatics and pneumatics. When it speaks to
the motive power of liquids and gases, it clearly
responds to the power-hunger of the 19th century.
Lardner talks about the old water wheels; but he
seems unaware that -- even as he wrote -- water
wheels were being made obsolete by the vastly
superior water turbine.
Neither book uses any mathematics. We read labored
verbal arguments that could have been made so
simple with just a little algebra or calculus --
with the mathematics that English and American
engineers were just starting to study in school.
The book on pneumatics treats the new technology of
flight. Hot-air balloons were 50 years old, and
parachutes less than that. The book dwells on the
unsolved problem of navigating a balloon -- of
taking control of its flight away from the wind and
giving it to a person.
Today, these old books teach us something they
weren't meant to. Today, they remind us that our
lives are being changed by some forces we're wise
enough to see -- but by others that will catch us
completely by surprise just a few years from now.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Lardner, the Rev. Dionysius, Hydrostatics and
Pneumatics. With notes by Benjamin F. Joslin,
M.D. (from The Cabinet of Natural Philosophy,
D. Lardner, ed.). Philadelphia: Carey and Lea, 1832.
Lardner, the Rev. Dionysius, The Steam
Engines Familiarly Explained and Illustrated, with
additions and notes by James Renwick, LL.D.
Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1836.
This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1718.
From The Steam Engine Familiarly
A state-of-the-art locomotive in 1835
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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