Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 594:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 594.

Today, an engineer takes a lifetime to create a town -- and to gain its trust. 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.

George Chaffey and his younger brother William took up the family trade of engineering in Canada. During the 1870s they followed their father, who'd built bridges and steamships. Then, when George was hardly past 30, he went to California as chief engineer of the new Los Angeles Electric Company.

He made Los Angeles the world's first all-electrically-lit city. Then he and William went into the California desert. There they built a modern irrigation system and created an 8,000-acre fruit-farming community.

Australian settlers faced the same problem of watering a dry land. In 1884, officials in the state of Victoria went to California for ideas. They found the young Chaffeys.

So George and William went to Australia to scout possible sites for an irrigation project. They roused suspicion when they went up the Murray River from Adelaide all the way to remote Mildura station. People in Victoria began thinking the Chaffeys were just two Yankee con men.

Then the neighboring state of South Australia invited them to their land, further down the Murray River. At that, Victoria swallowed its distrust. The Chaffeys finally went to work building two irrigated farm communities along the River.

They moved 3000 emigrants into the region. First they used steamboat engines to drive the irrigation pumps. Then they designed a complex system with a triple expansion steam engine.

The engine maker so distrusted their fancy design that he wouldn't put his own name on it. Today, that fine old engine is on display in Mildura. But it's labeled as a Chaffey engine.

Chaffey's system was a clear success, and the first crop was spectacular. Then outside troubles came, and new distrust arose.

First, the produce transport system broke down. Fruit rotted. There was depression. Banks failed. By 1896 Australia had laid full blame for disaster on the Chaffeys. George went bankrupt and returned to California. Back home he created a huge irrigation project in the Imperial Valley. He died a wealthy man.

But brother William stuck it out in Mildura. For years he worked to rebuild the town and to rebuild his life. By 1920, Mildura was a stable city, supplied by rail. That year her citizens elected him mayor. This engineer had stayed the course; he'd built a new world; and he'd made it into his own home.

Today, William Chaffey's statue stands in Mildura. He is, after all, the city's father, and he's trusted at last. But I wonder if trust was ever harder earned.

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

(Theme music)

Carroll, B., The Engineers: 200 years at Work for Australia. Barton, Australia: The Institution of Engineers, Australia, 1988, pp. 83-86.

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

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