Today, new boats in a new land. 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.
When Europeans came to North America they found a world of water
and wood that had to be navigated. Native Americans
had faced the same situation and created kayaks and
canoes light enough to be portaged over the land
between lakes and streams. Now the newcomers both copied the Indians, and went
their own way.
The familiar rowboat (or skiff) is stable, fairly heavy, and meant for service on one
lake or stream. It's pure European. But canoe adaptations are more interesting -- like
the big cargo-carrying canoes of 18th-century Canadian trappers,
European newcomers also adapted their own tools and skills to create new forms. While
the Indians built a light wooden frame in a bark or hide skin, the Europeans adapted their
traditional use of planking laid on ribs. At the same time they created new hydrodynamic
designs and they invented lighter structures.
Take the logger's bateau, a lovely workboat, heavily used in Maine's 19th-C
logging industry. It was a rugged, flat-bottomed, broad-beamed, shallow-draft boat with
a high prow and stern. It was a stable platform from which loggers could herd floating
logs in Maine's estuaries. Yet, for all its ruggedness, the bateau still rode the water
like a newly-fallen autumn leaf.
The loggers often propelled a bateau with the same poles they used to jockey logs. When
one hit logs it rode up out of the water onto them; it was not likely to be crushed. Yet
it was meant for one job only; and, when that job disappeared, so did it. The Maine
Maritime Museum has a very rare complete bateau and it's no light canoe. It's 33 feet
long with a six-foot beam; yet still kin to the canoe in the way it rides the surface of
The idea of creating canoe-like buoyancy with planks and ribs reached an apogee in the
19th-century Adirondack Guide Boat. It was developed for hunting guides in the patchwork
regions of lakes and hills called the Adirondack Mountains.
The ribs in a guide boat are single pieces, cut along the grain of wood -- very light and
strong. The planking is thin quarter-inch pine and it's laid without caulking. The finished
boat is simply immersed in water until the planks swell and seal themselves. It looks like
a canoe, but it's rowed -- with crossed hands. It's very light. A thirteen-foot guide boat
might weigh a little over only fifty pounds, and its draft is only a few inches. A guide
can easily carry such a boat from one lake to the next.
So look at the bateau and the guide boat. Admire their kinship. The wide flat bottom of
the bateau shrinks to maybe eight inches in a guide boat. But both reflect a love of the
beauty of wood used well. My listeners know I like to talk about airplanes. Well, what
draws me to these boats is that same gravity-defying impulse, the same love of buoyancy.
They truly do lie off in the vast fluid world between the Indian canoe and the early aeroplane.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
K Durant and H. Durant, The Adirondack Guide-Boat. (Blue Mountain Lake,
NY: The Adirondack Museum, 1980).
Thanks to Libby Barlow, UH Administration, for suggesting this episode and for
providing the Durant source. Nathan Lipfert, Senior Curator of the
Museum in Bath, Maine, provided very helpful counsel.
Thanks to Wikipedia Commons for the Adirondack guide boat images. Photos of the
bateau at the Maine Maritime Museum by JHL.
Maine Maritime Museum's logging Bateau -- 32' 9" long, 6' 3" wide
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H.