Engines of Our Ingenuity


No. 8:
PITTSBURGH IN 1816

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 8.

Today, we'll go back to Pittsburgh 170 years ago. 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.

Now what was so special about Pittsburgh and the year 1816? The War of 1812 had just ended. We'd survived our first 40 years of independence, and we'd started to see ourselves as a strong and solvent country. Pittsburgh was a singular town. It lay across that great natural barrier, the Allegheny mountains, far from America's population centers on the Atlantic coast.

It was so important because it was centered in the Western Pennsylvania coal fields. It's cheaper to bring iron to coal for smelting than to bring coal to iron. So Pittsburgh became our major iron producer soon after the first Western Pennsylvania blast furnace was set up in 1790. It became our major glass producer, too, because glass-making also requires a lot of heat. Between 1810 and 1820 Pittsburgh's population mushroomed from forty-seven hundred to more than seven thousand.

The odd thing is that Pittsburgh was so inaccessible! It sits at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, which connect it to the ocean at New Orleans, over a thousand miles away. It took over two weeks for a loaded wagon to make the 300-mile road trip over the mountains to Philadelphia.

Yet in a few years Pittsburgh had acquired three newspapers, nine churches, three theatres, a piano maker, five glass factories, three textile mills, a steam engine factory, 4000 tons of iron processing per year, two rolling mills, most of our nail production, and -- no surprise -- a notorious air pollution problem.

Robert Fulton's steamboat patent was only seven years old in 1816. In that year this inland city launched three of these gigantic boats to link itself to the ocean, and they weren't its first. Another boat made two years earlier in Pittsburgh, and bearing the unfortunate name of Vesuvius, burned up in New Orleans in 1816.

These words from an article in the September 3rd issue of the Pittsburgh Gazette say a lot about the mood of the place:

Those who first cross the Atlantic in a steam-boat will be entitled to a great portion of applause. In a few years we expect such trips will be common ... and bold will they be who first make a passage to Europe in a steam-boat.

In fact, the first transatlantic steamboat crossing was made -- with the help of some sail -- just three years later, in 1819.

The article ends with a quotation from Homer:

Bold was the man, the first who dared to brave,
in fragile bark, the wild perfidious wave.

That's the mark of a developing civilization -- healthy, adventurous technologies driven by that kind of awe and excitement.

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

(Theme music)


Pittsburgh in 1816. Philadelphia: Carnegie Library, 1916. (no author given)

This episode has been rewritten as Episode 1373.


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