Today, we meet a forgotten inventor who shaped a
new world. 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 25-year-old Scot named
James Porteous asked a ticket agent for passage to
America in 1873. "Where do you want to go?" asked
the agent. "I have no idea," replied Porteous.
"This family here just bought a ticket to Santa
Barbara," said the agent. "Why don't you travel
with them?" So Porteous did.
That may be anecdote, but it does help us
understand Porteous. By 1877 he was selling wagons
in Fresno, California. By 1880 he was an American
citizen who had been woven into Fresno Valley farm
life. Valley agriculture depended upon irrigation.
That meant canal digging. Fresno farmers badly
needed better earth-moving equipment for their
sandy soil. Farmers experimented with horse-drawn
earth-mover designs. The problem was harder to
solve than it seemed.
Yet Porteous solved it. His series of patents
reveal a subtle thread of real inventive genius.
Fresno farmers had been using something called a
buck scraper to move earth. It scraped up dirt and
pushed it along in front. It was hard to pull and
hard to unload.
Porteus' C-shaped scraper had a blade along the
bottom. It scooped dirt as it was pulled along.
That much was like the buck scraper, but this
machine rode on runners and could be tilted. An
operator walking behind it could change the angle.
When it was full, he tilted it back and let it
glide on the runners. He could dump dirt as he
passed over low spots and smooth out terrain. He
could vary the angle of attack to match the soil.
Porteous called it the "Fresno Scraper," and he
formed the Fresno Agricultural Works to build it.
It was soon being used all over the world. It was
one of the most important agricultural and civil
engineering machines ever made. Fresno Scrapers
served the US army in WW-I. The two-horse model
retailed for $28, yet today's bulldozer blades are
its direct offspring. The gigantic scraper-carryall
earth mover is its grandchild.
Finally, at the age of 47, Porteous raised eyebrows
in Fresno by eloping with a long-standing lady
friend named Jenny Ritchie. No matter. He raised
children and piled up inventions until he died at
the age of 74. In his maturity, Porteous drank in
the new 20th century. He owned Fresno's first car.
He took up photography. He told his six children
about the airplane he'd once invented. What's
behind that story, we never find out. His last
house is now a Boy Scout Headquarters.
Finally, when he died, his family found that he'd
left behind a book of poetry. I suppose that's no
surprise from a man who'd taken such active delight
in shaping America.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds