The Engines of Our Ingenuity is a radio program that tells the story of how our culture is formed by human creativity. Written and hosted by John Lienhard and other contributors, it is heard nationally on Public Radio and produced by Houston Public Media.

Click here for audio of Episode 1373.

Today, let’s visit embryonic Pittsburgh. 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 historical snapshot of Pittsburgh in the year 1816 offers an unexpected window into early American history. The War of 1812 had just ended. We’d survived our first forty years of independence, and we’d just begun seeing ourselves as a strong, solvent country. Pittsburgh was a singular town. It lay across the great natural barrier of the Allegheny Mountains, far from population centers on the Atlantic coast.

This settlement was so important because it lay right in the western Pennsylvania coal fields. It was cheaper to bring iron to coal for smelting than to bring coal to iron. So, soon after the first Western Pennsylvania blast furnace was set up in 1790, Pittsburgh emerged as our major source of iron. It became our major source of glass as well, because glassmaking also requires a lot of heat. Between 1810 and 1820 Pittsburgh’s population mushroomed from forty-seven-hundred to more than seven thousand.

What was odd about all that was Pittsburgh’s inaccessibility. It sits at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. They connect it to the ocean at New Orleans, over a thousand miles away. With the Erie Canal a decade in the future, it took over two weeks for a loaded wagon to make the three-hundred-mile trip over the mountains to Philadelphia.

Despite that, Pittsburgh had acquired three newspapers, nine churches, three theaters, a piano maker, five glass factories, three textile mills, a steam engine factory, four thousand tons of iron processing per year, two rolling mills, most of our nail production, and (no surprise) a notorious air-pollution problem.

Robert Fulton’s steamboat patent was only seven years old in 1816. Nevertheless, this inland city launched three of those gigantic boats that year to link itself to the ocean. And they weren’t its first. Another boat, made two years earlier in Pittsburgh and bearing the unfortunate name of Vesuvius, burned up in New Orleans in 1816. These words from an article in the September 3rd issue of the Pittsburgh Gazette say much about the mood of the place:

Those who first cross the Atlantic in a steam boat will be entitled to a great portion of applause. In a few years we expect such trips will be common … and bold will they be who first make a passage to Europe in a steam boat.

In fact, the first transatlantic steamboat crossing was made, with the help of sail, just three years later.The article ends with a quotation from Homer:

Bold was the man, the first who dared to brave,
… in fragile bark, the wild perfidious wave.

There it is. The imprint of a developing civilization — healthy, adventurous technologies driven by awe, excitement, and (maybe most important) a perfectly implausible self-confidence.

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

(Theme music)

Pittsburgh in 1816. Philadelphia: Carnegie Library, 1916. (no author given)

This is a revised version of Episode 8.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © by John H. Lienhard, and is used with permission.