Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2573
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, 1885

by John H. Lienhard

Today, a future takes form. 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.

My issue of the 1885 Scientific American magazine exposes the difficulty of science and technology reporting. We need to know what's happening because the present hints at how the future is being built. But the present only hints; it does not reveal.

Example: A student just asked me about the influence, and the future, of the Kindle digital book. I had to say that we'd know only when that future was formed. The Kindle could well survive and gain traction. But today, it's as far from its mature form as the Wright Brother's airplane was. Maybe instead of being like a Wright airplane, the Kindle will be more like a Hindenburg airship. But, either way, we want to trace its progress.

With that in mind, let's see what held promise a century and a quarter ago: The cover picture is an etching of a new British cruiser, HMS Imperieuse. It has modern gun turrets and copper sheathing along with two tall masts for sails. Far from being a portent of the future, this was the ugly duckling of a technological transition. Later, they chopped off the masts and put it into limited peacetime service. And it was scrapped even before WW-I. But turn the page, and we find something quite different -- an article about the potential of a new torpedo boat for making big gunships obsolete.

HMS Imperieuse

We find many more futures-in-the-making here -- like plans for a large public park around Niagara Falls. That's a place you've probably visited. An article praises the good work being done by the new Cooper Union College -- teaching technology to the citizens of New York City. And Cooper Union remains strong today.

Then there's an article about the great French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps. He's finished the Suez Canal and is now setting out to build a Panama Canal. De Lesseps would give up in defeat after some 22,000 workers died, mostly of Yellow Fever. America finished the job in 1914 -- at the cost of another 5600 lives.

Button hook holderSo the future did emerge from these articles, though in unexpected forms. Only a few items were true dead ends -- like a button hook that mounts on your boot so it'll be there when you need it.

The advertisements also show the future unfolding: This is two years after the Brooklyn Bridge opened and its builder, John Roebling, is selling, not the bridge, but wire rope and pulleys. The new Bell Telephone Co. has posted a notice. It warns that anyone else's electric speech machine infringes on their patents.

Bell Telephone Co. notice     Asbestos covering

The ad for Columbia Bicycles still shows a penny-farthing bike with the huge front wheel, even though this was the year when modern safety bikes began taking over the market. You can buy asbestos insulation for your steam boiler. Or you can order Dr. Treskow's cure for weak and nervous men. It'll restore perfect manhood. (Well, maybe advertising hasn't changed so much after all.)

Roebling wire rope    Columbia Bicycles

So here's a world of huge creative energy and forward motion. Nothing came out quite as we expected, but still: What a wonderful snapshot of America, just halfway to where it is today.

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

(Theme music)


Scientific American, Vol LII, No. 23, June 6, 1885.

For more on this sort of period quackery (below) see Episode No. 2511.

Treskow's quack medicine


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2010 by John H. Lienhard.