Today, we say goodbye to a technology. 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.
A small outboard-motor boat
leaves the east shore of Lake Klamath, 20 miles
north of Klamath Falls, Oregon. In it are four of
us -- all from the Oregon State Highway Department.
We're laying out a new road -- route 140 -- up the
west side of the lake. The other three are seasoned
road surveyors. I'm a college student -- still a
teenager. We begin a 45-minute ride in the clear
chill of the summer morning. The old-timers play
pinochle while I steer the boat across the lake.
On the west side we carry our transits, measuring
chains, and machetes up into the undergrowth on the
large hill that rises out of the lake. Our
equipment is a lot like the equipment George
Washington used when he was my age.
The day grows hot. We curse the brush, and we curse
the surveyor who set the benchmarks we're trying to
locate. We're probably the first humans to walk
this remote ground since a government surveyor
placed those markers in the 1870s. Some of them are
50 feet out of place -- some we never find. Our
predecessor obviously worked rapidly and without
great care. Yet our boss insists we turn over every
stick before we give up on any marker. He's a
rough, sun-beaten man, but he has an historical
sense of what he's doing. However badly those
markers were placed, that surveyor is part of the
fraternity. If we can possibly find his benchmarks,
we'll do it.
By summer's end, we've tied the roadbed to official
markers and staked it out, straight as an arrow, 14
miles into the endless flat forest above Lake
Klamath. I go back to school -- to think about
other things. Only years later do I return to the
site of those Sisyphean labors, to whiz down that
arrow-straight road I once helped build.
Surveying had the flavor of trail-blazing when I
was young. It meant going where other people did
not go and doing something important. It was dirty,
hard, and yet romantic work.
Surveying is a form of information management.
Surveyors answer the questions "Where?" and "How
far?" They locate things. And we're living in the
middle of an information revolution. Surveying,
like every technology that deals in information, is
being changed beyond recognition. Today,
instruments can triangulate from satellites and
locate any point on the planet, in three
dimensions, to within millimeters. Today the
instruments we used on the west slope of Lake
Klamath are being made to look like relics from the
stone age. I can look at other technological change
with equanimity, but today's surveying techniques
make me feel old. Today's surveyors make me feel so
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds