Whatever Floats Your Boat
A piece of modern camping equipment goes way, way back
In a recent issue, we ran an article about the Orukter Amphibolos, a purported land/water vehicle built 200 years ago. While researching that piece in John F. Watson’s Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania , we came upon the following: “About sixty-five years ago [i.e., around 1777, when you’d think Philadelphians would have had other things to worry about], many hundred persons went out to the Schuylkill to see a man cross that river in a boat carried in his pocket! He went over safe, near High street. B. Chew, Esq., saw it, and told me of it, and my father saw the same at Amboy. It was made of leather—was like parchment—was about five feet long—was upheld by air-vessels, which were inflated, and seemed to occupy the usual place of gunwales. For want of a patent office, the art is probably lost. The fact gives a hint for light portable boats for arctic explorers, and suggests a means of making more buoyant vessels on canals.”
Amazing—somebody built a working inflatable boat in George Washington’s day! But the technology turns out to be much, much older. According to an article at www.allinflatables.com, “the history of the inflatable boat goes back as far as 880 b.c., when the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II ordered troops to cross a river using greased animal skins, which they inflated continuously to keep the vessels afloat. In ancient China, during the Sung and Ming dynasties, inflated, airtight skins were used for crossing rivers.”
Even those “airtight” Chinese skins must have leaked a little, and the same goes for the ones used to cross the Schuylkill. Still, Watson’s suggestions about possible uses for this technology proved quite prescient, as both were patented within a few years of the book’s publication. On his 1845 Arctic expedition, Sir John Franklin brought along an inflatable boat made of rubberized cloth, which doubled as a cloak when not in the water. It had been invented by Lt. Peter Alexander Halkett and proved useful in polar exploration, though it never found much of a market with the general public.
As for Watson’s idea about canalboats, it was turned into an invention by none other than Abraham Lincoln, who received U.S. patent No. 6,469 for a scheme to use inflatable chambers to lift boats over sandbars. Fortunately for posterity, that scheme did not turn out to be practical enough for Lincoln to make a business of it.
—Frederic D. Schwarz
The World That Was
Industrial ruins have a grandeur and fascination all their own, one that’s quite different from the impression left by decaying monuments or ancient architecture. On seeing the Acropolis or Angkor Wat, a typical visitor will be awestruck at how the majesty of great art endures across the millennia. Walking around a derelict coke plant or steel mill, a visitor is more likely to wonder what a particular building was used for or guess how many tons it produced per day.
A fine collection of photographs of mostly abandoned industrial installations, taken by the photographer Shaun O’Boyle, can be found at www.oboylephoto.com/ruins . The site has scores of beautiful pictures, some in color and some black-and-white, of the Bethlehem Steel Works, the Tahawus iron mine in the Adirondacks, train and boat yards (though the lack of identification for many of these images can be frustrating), factories, mills, power stations, and many other sites. Prints of these pictures and O’Boyle’s equally outstanding travel photography are available through the site.
Another good site for industrial archeologists is www.undercity.org , curated by the photographer and historian Steve Duncan. As the name suggests, this site emphasizes underground sites, though not exclusively. Duncan gives a sewer-rat’s-eye view of railway tunnels, an abandoned Milwaukee coke plant, bridges, hospitals, jails, asylums, and a Titan missile silo near Denver. The photographer, who styles himself “a guerrilla historian in Gotham,” also provides ample commentary on his subjects, the history behind them, and how he took the pictures.
—Frederic D. Schwarz
Several issues back, an article mentioned the restoration in Ohio of an S-shaped bridge on the National Road, America’s first federal highway. Meanwhile, in West Virginia, a group of smaller but still important artifacts have recently been restored: the mile markers that dot the National Road’s 16-mile stretch through the state’s northern panhandle. These markers, installed when the road opened in the 1830s, were made of cast iron painted to look like stone, with inscriptions giving the distances to Wheeling, (West) Virginia; Cumberland, Maryland; and other towns along the way. Although the four-foot-tall obelisks were quite sturdy, six of them had disappeared over the years, and the other nine had sustained damage, sometimes serious, from cars, vandals, and the elements.
After word got out about the restoration project, one of the missing 300-pound markers turned up in the basement of a man who had taken it for safe keeping. Members of West Virginia University’s Institute for the History of Technology and Industrial Archeology (IHTIA) brought it to their Virtual Environments Laboratory and made a laser scan, which they used to create a set of computer-assisted-design drawings that were sent to the foundry. (The laser scan was made primarily to test the laboratory’s experimental technology; the foundry used an actual marker to make its mold for casting the replacement.)
A historic-preservation consulting firm analyzed a paint sample to determine the markers’ original color, and Carboline, a St. Louis paint company, came up with a matching shade. When Dan Bonenberger, the chair of IHTIA, mentioned what the paint would be used for, the company decided to provide it for free. Chips and cracks were repaired using an epoxy filler with a high iron-particle content.
The markers were reinstalled in October 2004, and now motorists along U.S. Route 40, which replaced West Virginia’s stretch of the National Road in the 1920s, can see technological history out their car windows even as they drive on it. Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio are considering restoring their own National Road markers, and with a life span measured in centuries, they should help keep the memory of the National Road alive for a very long time to come.
—Frederic D. Schwarz