Today, woodcuts shape the dream of 20th-century
travel. 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 wife gave me an odd book
the other day. It was a collection of old
engravings about transportation. They came from
19th-century magazines like Harpers, The
Illustrated London News, and
There were only about 20 professional engravers in
America in 1838. A generation later, there were
400. Illustrated magazines took off with a rocket
assist from improved presses and people hungry for
news. It was 1890 before we could make good
half-tone illustrations from photos. So, for a
time, engravings fed image-hungry Americans.
Those pictures not only trace our fascination with
images. They also trace a new hunger to move
rapidly and freely about this vast country. Let's
see what they show us.
We begin with horse and human-powered vehicles.
They show a fascination with buoyancy and design.
The gigs and hacks grow lighter and more inventive.
One-horse shays mutate into experimental bicycles.
We follow a great parade of penny-farthings,
unicycles, passenger tricycles -- even a man inside
a giant rolling wheel.
At century's end, tiny motors appear on bikes and
trikes. First you think they're embryonic
automobiles. But these machines are buoyant as air.
The first cars are another matter. They carry steam
boilers. We control them with the same levers you
see in locomotive cabs.
No, the bike is going another way. Bicycle makers
craved the airy lightness of being. They were about
to give us the airplane. So we turn to the part on
Now fancy mixes with fact. Bicycle pedals drive
propellers to steer balloons. Here's a weird
man-powered helicopter with seven propellers. It
never could've flown. But there's Otto Lilienthal's
glider. It flew very well indeed.
We move on to ships. Here are submarines powered by
steam and by man. There is a sinister gathering of
ironclad Civil War gunboats. The new ocean steamers
and warships loom tall. They still carry sail --
just in case.
These fine engravings weave in the drama that
photos usually leave out. Our imagination races in
the headlamp of a locomotive screaming through
night snow in the mountains.
In a few years we would turn our dreams of travel
into set realities -- into trains, planes, and
automobiles. But now, for a moment, these old
woodcuts show the naked formative dream in full
rush -- about to change America utterly.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds