Skip to main content
No. 1804:
New York Harbor: 1852

Today, and artist catches history in flight. 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.

Maritime historian Erik Ronnberg shows us a painting of New York Harbor. It was done in 1852 by a famous marine artist, Fitz Hugh Lane. Lane has recorded the busy harbor with photographic accuracy and a wealth of detail that early cameras would be unlikely to've captured. Fifteen vessels are shown clearly and, as we look, we realize the astonishing variety they represent.

Two sail-driven packets dominate the foreground. These were the new freighters that'd been developed for economical runs between Europe and America. Further back is a conventional three-masted ocean ship. Scattered in among them are three small coastal sloops and three kinds of oar-driven boats.

Lane painted this picture 33 years after we'd first tried to cross the Atlantic under steam. Steam was still very young, but it's also very evident here. A third packet in the rear is almost background. But it's steam-driven, even though it has two masts with sail. This ocean-going ship is still driven by paddle wheels.

We also see one riverboat. Riverboats had been evolving to fit our vast inland river system ever since Robert Fulton. In fact Fulton had soon moved to Pittsburgh to build steamboats, but they didn't look like this. They'd only recently reached the form in which they lie so strongly upon our imagination — the stuff of Mark Twain, cotton, and gambling along Ole Man River.

Two steam-driven towboats are visible in Lane's picture, but how different they are from one another! One is a side-wheeler powered by an old Watt type of engine. It's like Fulton's first boat. The other is up-to-date. It's driven by a modern screw propeller, and it looks a lot like today's tugboats.

Now and then one of our technologies rolls over. We see that happening here. Nine years before this picture, my great-grandfather came from Europe on a sailing ship and crossed the prairie to California on foot. Two years before this picture, he left on a steam packet for Panama. Change was that rapid.

By the early twentieth century, you see another great technological rollover in photos of city streets. Horse-drawn vehicles of every kind move along with bicycles and autos driven by both steam and gasoline. You see them all struggling for ascendancy.

Photos of offices from the mid-1980s reveal an even more rapid turnover. There we watch the last typewriters in their brief and hopeless struggle for survival as the new word-processors relentlessly move in among them.

So we're lucky to have Lane's picture of New York Harbor. Rollovers like this are brief once they've begun. Catching one as it happens is a little like trying to photograph lightning. Hesitate and we'll miss the moment completely. New technologies are aggressive. Once the advantage of any new engine of our ingenuity is clear, we have only an instant to click the shutter.

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

(Theme music)

Ronnberg, E.A., Jr., A Few Words About This Picture. American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Fall 1988, pp. 14-20.

To view the Fitz Hugh Lane painting, see:

This is a greatly revised version of Episode 193.   I did this revision in 2003.  Two years later, art historians discovered that artist Lane's middle name was not Huge, but Henry.   Today, you will find him referred to by either middle name.

Closeup view of the sort of steam/sail vessel that appears in the background of the Lane painting

Closeup view of the sort of steam/sail vessel that appears in the background of the Lane painting.