Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2299:
TECHNOLOGY IN 1873

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we try to focus on a blur of change. 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.

A book titled The Science Record of 1873 celebrates advances during that year in our young nation. It bulges with hundreds of capsule descriptions. We find rather little science, by the way. And when science appears it's either instrumentation or some new observation of species, fossils, geography, or stars. This book is about technologies. And technology is turning us from an energetic backwoods into a major industrial nation. Let's sample it.

Railroad developer George Pullman has just come out with his new paper railroad wheel. The web of this wheel is made of paper laminated in a kind of matrix. It's very strong and gives the wheel remarkable sound and shock absorbency. Pullman used these wheels for decades on his luxurious passenger cars.

Riding a steam streetcar Here's a steam-driven streetcar. We were then playing with new forms of urban transportation. Horse-drawn streetcars were the norm. The authors weren't yet aware of the new cable car system being installed in San Francisco. But, in another section, they do suggest a system with the streetcar likewise being drawn through a slot in the street -- but not by a cable. They suggest that a small steam locomotive drone might ride in a little tunnel below the street, pulling the streetcar along with it.

But that speculation that never came to pass. Two forms of steam streetcars are already in use. One carries a steam boiler and a small five horsepower engine. It has a second piston that'll add twenty more horsepower when it needs to go uphill. And yet, turning streetcars into steam locomotives seems a bit excessive. So another form avoids the problem of carrying a steam boiler. Instead, each time it returns to its barn, the conductor recharges a tank with pressurized hot water. The hot water is allowed to flash into a piston-cylinder, driving it around its nine-mile route.

Of course, all those experiments (even the cable car) would be blown away by the electric trolley in another fifteen years. For now, we're watching the messy, but strangely efficient, process of evolution in action. And mutant ideas do tumble forth:

Flourescent light A new dirigible is driven by four men. They generate two-thirds of a horsepower as they crank the propeller and reach a speed of five miles an hour. A tiny electrically-driven jack-hammer helps dentists to pack amalgam fillings. Someone has built an early fluorescent lamp, a decade before the bulb suddenly came into use. There's a lot on bridges -- including an artist's conception of the Brooklyn Bridge -- now under construction. It won't be finished for another decade.

Electricity is tiptoeing into the American scene, and telegraphy is its stalking horse -- lots on the new underwater cables. We find very little on war machines. This was a time of peace and peace feeds the invention muse. What we see here, all the through, is a spirit of optimism -- expressed in all the wondrous new machinery of a wondrous new nation.

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

(Theme music)


A. E. Beach, The Science Record of 1873: A Compendium of Scientific Progress and Discovery during the Past Year. Alfred Eli Beach, ed. (New York: Scientific American, 1873). My thanks to Andrew Lienhard for locating the book. All images are from this book.

Steam street car

1873 dirigible

Dental mallet

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.