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No. 579:
Convicts Build Australia

Today, a prison colony becomes a modern nation. 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.

It's a half-foggy morning in Sydney, Australia. I climb the hill West of Sydney Cove. Across the Cove, the famous Opera House with its swooping roofs glints in the misty sun. It looks like a squadron of French nuns putting to sea in a rowboat.

England sent Captain Arthur Phillip out in 1787 to set up a penal colony in nearby Botany Bay. Botany Bay turned out to be marshland, so Phillips moved here -- to Sydney Cove. It's only a little dent inside a large fjord that reaches in from the ocean.

The first convicts arrived in 1788. Most had committed crimes against property. One had stolen a five pound note; another not much more than a loaf of bread. Many were old. They had not come for the adventure of it.

So this morning I try to see the Cove stripped of the great city that surrounds me. The convicts lived on this side. Their keepers lived across the way. Phillips's first order of business was water supply. He'd picked this Cove because a stream ran into it. He ordered huge storage cisterns to be carved into the sandstone along its banks. So they named the creek Tank Stream.

It was a good move in the short term. The creek dried up in hot summers. Water would be a major problem for years to come. But now these Odd-Couple emigrants -- these prisoners and their keepers -- faced other troubles.

They had to reinvent agriculture. What worked in England didn't work here. They'd brought wood-working tools designed for the soft woods of Europe. Australian woods, like eucalyptus, are hard as iron. They resist damage even by fire.

Yet this artificial community flourished. By 1819 the citizens of Sydney took on a surprising project. They began a great Cathedral -- the first in Australia. I walked through it yesterday, and I was moved by their audacity.

These people started out living like cave men. They didn't even have draft animals and water wheels. In one generation, they were able to invest their energies in a Gothic Cathedral.

I'm here for a conference with Australian Engineers. They're weighing their position against other industrial nations. But this morning I leave all that. I walk the sandstone cliffs where convicts first carved primitive shelters. The backdrop is one of the great cities of the world.

The view offers peculiar praise to the power of the human spirit. It reminds us that we too can turn our various imprisonments into freedom and prosperity. This view tells the liberating power of human energy and creativity.

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

(Theme music)

Carroll, B., The Engineers: 200 years at Work for Australia. Barton, Australia: The Institution of Engineers, Australia, 1988.