Skip to main content
No. 1180:
Lardner and Energy

Today, a contemporary look at power technology, 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.

The Rev. Dionysius Lardner wrote technical handbooks in the early 1800s. His Popular Lectures on the Steam Engine came out in 1828 -- about 40 years after James Watt had developed his new steam engine. Lardner's book rapidly went through a series of English and American editions. By 1836 he was dealing with everything from the availability of coal to rules for railway investors.

So what do you suppose Lardner had to say about the impact of the new engines? He showed some real vision, but he combined it with the same optimistic short-sightedness we see all around us today. He began by dramatizing the new engines. He said:

In a [recent] report it was announced that a steam engine ... erected ... in Cornwall, had raised 125 millions of pounds, 1 foot high, with a bushel of coals. ... The great pyramid of Egypt [weighs 13 billion] lbs. To construct it cost the labour of 100,000 men for 20 years. [Today it could] be raised ... by the combustion of 479 tons of coals.

That's very impressive, but what about rising coal consumption? He tries to calm people's worries:

The enormous consumption of coals in the arts and manufactures, and in steam navigation, has excited the fears of ... exhaustion of our mines. These apprehensions, however, may be allayed by the assurance [of] the highest mining and geological authorities, that the coal fields of Northumberland and Durham alone are sufficient to supply [the present demand] for 1700 years, and ... the great coal basin of South Wales will ... supply the same demand for 2000 years longer.

Those reserves do little today to satisfy England's energy needs -- never mind the rest of the energy-hungry world. But Lardner's failure to recognize our constant craving for more is all too familiar. So is his sure faith that progress will keep us out of trouble. His final assurance is one you've heard in discussions of population, energy, pollution, and every other problem that rises out of modern consumption:

... in speculations like these, the ... progress of improvement and discovery ought not to be overlooked. ... Philosophy already directs her finger at sources of inexhaustible power. ... We are on the eve of mechanical discoveries still greater than any which have yet appeared.

If Lardner underestimated our appetites, he correctly saw that human ingenuity will keep finding ways to meet those appetites longer than we may think. The problem, of course, is that ingenuity will keep bailing us out, right up to that one last time -- when it fails to bail us out. And if we wait 'til then, we'll be in for worse trouble than we ever dreamt.

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

(Theme music)

Lardner, The Rev. D., Popular Lectures on THE STEAM ENGINE, in which its Construction and Operation are familiarly Explained; with an Historical Sketch of its Invention and Progressive Improvement. New York: Elam Bliss, 1828.

Lardner, The Rev. D., The Steam Engine Familiarly Explained and Illustrated ... etc. Philadelphia: E. L. Carey & A. Hart, 1836.

This is a new version of an earlier program, Engines Episode 13.