Strange & Improbable   Leave a comment



In considering how steamboats changed the way that Americans viewed their rivers, I keep running into strange things. Throughout the writings of the 18th- & 19th-century, readers can find frequent reference to the size and majesty of the boats, celebrations of American ingenuity and its apparent mastery over nature, worries over some of the degenerate behavior on board, & always notes about how strange things are becoming — the noise and grandeur of the boat as seen from the shore, its unaccustomed speed & tiered structure giving passengers unaccustomed views of the river & shore. Although the literary history of the steamboat becomes increasingly strange as imaginative & insightful writers such as Melville & Twain arrive on the scene, the oddity surfaces from the start. Here’s a fragment from a letter to “his Excellency General Washington,” written by James Rumsey & dated the 10th of March, 1785. Rumsey was one of the early experimenters in the field, & he reprinted his letter to Washington in A Short Treatise on the Application of Steam, Whereby Is Clearly Shewn, from Actual Experiments, That Steam May Be Applied to Propel Boats or Vessels of Any Burthen Against Rapid Currents with Great Velocity. Great Velocity.

The power is immense — and I have quite convinced myself that boats of passage may be made to go against the current of the Mississippi or Ohio rivers, or in the Gulf Stream (from the Leeward to the Windward-Islands) from sixty to one hundred miles per day. I know this will appear strange and improbable to many persons, yet I am very certain it may be performed, besides, it is simple (when understood) and is also strictly philosophical.



Posted September 2, 2011 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

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