Today, we find a lovely old technology hiding in
the forest. 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 road twisted its way
through the Oregon woods, far from any sign of
human life. Suddenly, without warning, a big
painted sign: Trolley Museum, with an arrow to the
left. It clearly wasn't a civic museum, and a
tourist money-maker would've praised the merits of
its snake oil. Either one would've given 200 yards
notice. This was something else. It was worth a
I screeched to a stop and backed up. My dozing wife
snapped awake to wonder what this was all about.
Then we saw it. A museum building amidst railroad
barns, trolley tracks, and overhead wires. A group
of hobbyists had found an abandoned logging rail
center and used it to house their passion --
rebuilding old electric rolling stock.
These old gentlemen were celebrating a technology
not too much older than they themselves. Effective
city train systems began with San Francisco's cable
cars in 1873. Central steam engines drove cables
that the cars could grasp and release to start and
stop. But cable cars flourished for only 20 years.
When Thomas Edison developed central electric power
systems in 1882, electricity infected the public
mind like a fever. It took only six years for
electric trolley systems to spring up all over
America. Cable cars lived out what life was left in
them and then yielded to electric trolleys. By 1893
Oregon had created the first intercity electric
trolley. You could ride from Portland to Oregon
City. You could take a picnic lunch to Willamette
Trolleys gave way to buses after WW-II. I keenly
felt the loss as the clean ozone smell of sparks
was replaced with fumes and car-sickness. But now,
in the quiet Oregon woods, it all came back to
We paid our $3.00 for a guided tour. A loquacious
old driver threw switches and rang the bell. He
told us more than we really needed to know about
rattan seats on "Old Number 504," about the
Blackpool Standard Omnibus, and about Australian
Tram #1187. But that was all right. What he was
really doing was giving voice to the nostalgia we
all felt for this elegant old technology.
Perhaps it was more than nostalgia. For now these
old machines are returning to our cities in new
clothing. The New York subways and the Chicago "El"
were versions that never did die out. And now most
large cities are creating slick modern electric
rail systems that are a delight to ride.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds