Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 161:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, a new look at the birch-bark canoe. 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.

No really clever invention gets very far in its original form. It goes through changes until it either catches on or dies out. Every now and then, an idea doesn't just catch on. People improve it until it fits its purpose perfectly -- until it can't be changed any more. And that's how it was with Indian canoes.

When I was a kid in Minnesota we called ourselves the "Land of 10,000 Lakes." That wasn't just for the tourists. The place is riddled with lakes, and they all have canoes on them. Nowadays most canoes are made of aluminum or fiberglas, with polystyrene floats in the bow and stern. But they're still very nearly carbon copies of the old Indian birch-bark canoe.

Historians have traced the Indian canoe back as far as they can, but that's not very far. Indians didn't keep much in the way of written records. The canoes themselves were completely biodegradable, so we don't have archeological remains, either. All we do have are some scanty records left by European explorers after the 16th century. All we really know is that canoe-making was perfected a long time ago and that it stayed static for centuries.

Canoes are shallow-draft boats with a fine, delicate shape. Their perfect hydrodynamic form has a lot in common with the Viking ship. One advantage over a rowboat is that the paddler faces the direction he's going. Most Indian canoes were small, light, and fast. They'd carry a few people rapidly up and down rivers and lakes. The Iroquois built big, 30-foot-long freight-carrying canoes that could haul 18 passengers or a ton of merchandise. But even they could be portaged by just three people.

The Indian canoe was a tough light wooden frame with a skin of bark -- usually birch. Sometimes the bark was put on in one piece and pleated to take up slack as it was contoured. Sometimes it was sewn in sections and caulked with spruce gum. The techniques of sewing, binding, carving, and selecting and preparing materials were very sophisticated. Designs varied from tribe to tribe, according to local conditions. But even the kayak in the far north, covered with animal skin instead of bark, reflects the same concepts of shape and propulsion.

Every now and then human ingenuity brings a technology to a kind of dead end of functional perfection. That's far from true of today's computers or telephones. But it is true of stringed instruments, silverware, and lead pencils. It's scary to consider that once a technology gets to this point, further change has to come from beyond our imagination. The motorboat, after all, came from some place far outside the dreams of Indian canoe makers.

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

(Theme music)

See your Encyclopaedia Britannica article on canoes. See also,

Dyson, G., Baidarka: The Kayak, Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Books, 1986.

This episode has been greatly rewritten as Episode 1620.

The 1896 Scribner's Magazine celebrates a Native American technology now thoroughly adopted by the white man

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H. Lienhard.