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No. 201:
Rush to Build Steamboats

Today, we hurry to use a new 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.

The French ran the first working steamboat and flew the first manned balloon -- both in 1783. But it was 24 years before either of these wonders was put to use. Then, in 1807, Robert Fulton gave America a steamboat with all the ingredients for commercial success. The time was ripe for Fulton's boat because we'd just doubled our land mass with the Louisiana Purchase. Now we owned both sides of the gigantic Mississippi River system.

So much unexplored and inaccessible land! We had to find means for navigating the Western rivers. The big European rivers were all paralleled with roads, but ours were flanked only with forests. But those forests could be used to fuel steam engines. And we had industrial river ports like New York and New Orleans that could build and maintain heavy machinery.

We were suddenly ready for the steam-powered riverboat. The first one was built in the inland port of Pittsburgh a scant four years after Fulton's success. In 1814 the port of New Orleans was visited by 20 steamboats. In 1834 that number had risen to 1200.

But there was no EPA or OSHA to protect the public -- only a driving desire to open up that great oyster of the American West. The riverboats were very grand, but they were constantly pushed beyond safety and beyond their capacities. Their boilers blew up. They capsized. They went aground on snags and sand bars. Some called them "Palaces on Paddle-Wheels." Others spoke of "Swimming Volcanoes." Either way, they riveted public attention.

Riverboat accidents had killed 4000 people outright by 1850. That didn't include people missing or permanently damaged. A survey of the Ohio River made after the Civil War turned up 129 riverboat hulks that threatened traffic on the Ohio River alone.

I view those beautiful old boats with a grinding ambivalence. The West wasn't opened by cautious people. It was a dangerous place, and we'd still be tiptoeing into it if we'd shown anything approaching reasonable caution. I revel in the madcap technological self-expression that flung our machines into that wilderness. At the same time I'm as angered as you are when I see carelessness in our technology today.

Engineers' lives are immersed in moral issues. Maybe I like the middle 19th century so much because the child in me sees how much fun we could have if we could only ignore the things that grownups cannot possibly ignore.

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

(Theme music)

Ward, J.K. Steamboat Treasures of the Ohio Rivers. Lost Treasures. June, 1976.


A steamboat on Buffalo Bayou in Houston in 1873
(as shown in Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, July 28, 1888)