Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 506:
GRAND DREAMS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 506.

Today, our appetite is too large to feed. 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 University of Washington Library looks like an unfinished Gothic cathedral. Inside are the stumps of huge steel piers. They were meant to hold a great spire. The library was to be a cathedral to books and knowledge. Soberer heads intervened before we finished this academic Notre Dame. We never built the great spire. Since then the Library has burrowed into a warren of basements and low lying buildings, instead.

A librarian shows me an exhibit he recently mounted. He called it, Unbuilt Washington. It picks up the theme of unresolved dreams. An eerie parade of unfinished designs marches through it. We see city transport systems, gold and copper mines, oil wells, great canal systems, and the Boeing Supersonic Transport.

Most of the designs were serious. A few were just shell games to trap unwary investors. Others -- like the unbuilt spire above me -- could yet rise in reality, some day.

I'm awed by the daring of these designs. In 1916, an association
called for a 30 mile highway tunnel under the Cascade Mountains. It would've been three times longer than anything built for years to come. We were just starting to drive cars in 1916. Yet we already wanted a road under the mountains. The sheer magnitude of that one catches our breath.

A 1950 headline says the plan to build a bridge across Puget Sound is nearing reality. By 1966, a Highway Department study proclaims that such a bridge is feasible. It also points out that we could drill a tunnel under the Sound, instead.

Finally, I see! This exhibit is no joke about human folly. It's a celebration of all that might have been. Consider what isn't in the exhibit. A concrete floating bridge, all the way across Lake Washington, seems no less mad. The reason it's not there is that two of them have already been built.

America teems with finished works, crazier than anything here. The dream of cutting a 400 mile canal across New York in 1817 was far more bizarre. Yet we built the Erie Canal anyway.

So I walk away from the library under a gray drizzle. I glance back over my shoulder. That great spire rises in the mists of my imagination. It is beautiful. Never mind that it's only a dream. It reminds me that dreams are the great engines that ultimately forge realities. If our reach never exceeded the thing we were sure to grasp, our technology -- and our lives -- would be poor indeed.

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

(Theme music)


Two people provided material for this episode. They were Richard Engeman, Photographs and Graphics Librarian, and Carla Rickerson, Pacific Northwest Librarian, University of Washington Special Collections. Mr. Engeman mounted the special exhibit. He called it, Unbuilt Washington: A Century of Unrealized Plans, Grand Visions, Imaginary Buildings, and a Few Frauds. (I am grateful to Pat Bozeman, Head of Special Collections, UH Library, for putting me in touch with this source.)

See also:

Chittenden, H.M., A 30-Mile Railway Tunnel Under the Cascade Mountains. Engineering News, Nov. 16, 1916, 26 pages.

Cross-Sound Transportation Study. Wash. State Dept. of Highways. January 1966.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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