(Roughly) Daily

“Crying won’t help you, praying won’t do you no good…When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move”*…


Your correspondent is headed off to his daughter’s graduation– a process rather lengthier and more complex than in the distant past, when he “walked.”  Posts will resume on or around June 1.  In the meantime, Gaudeamus Igitur, y’all

The levees of the 1920s were about six times as high as their earlier predecessors, but really no more effective. In a sense, they had been an empirical experiment — in aggregate, fifteen hundred miles of trial and error.

— John McPhee, The Control of Nature

Last month, the United States issued Patent No. 9,000,000 (for a rainwater-harvesting windshield washer). Every patent tells a story, and a virtual tour through the archive offers a remarkable view of American society, policy, industry, and environment. Here we find technologies that shape a nation but many more machines that fail and ideas that never catch on. Yet to regard the patent office merely as a protectionist legal institution or a hall of curiosities is a mistake, for if every lost invention represents an alternate history, it also contains the seeds of a possible future.

This is especially true for patents granted under the Department of Interior in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the infrastructures that supported national expansion were being developed, tested, and improved. Consider the history of attempts to control and modify American rivers, culminating in the vast levee systems that transformed the Mississippi River Basin and Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, opening vital transportation corridors and buildable lands while devastating riparian and coastal ecosystems. Behind every mainstream levee technology — every dragline excavator and clamshell dredge — there is a host of forgotten and highly speculative inventions that would have produced a very different landscape: the levees that might have been…

Alternative history at “Levees That Might Have Been- A history of forgotten inventions that would have produced a very different landscape along American rivers.”

* Robert Plant/Led Zeppelin


As we watch the water rise, we might send wonderfully worded birthday greetings to William Whewell; he was born on this date in 1794.  One of the 19th Century’s most remarkable polymaths, Whewell, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, was a scientist (crystallographer, meteorologist), philosopher, theologian, and historian of science,  But he is best remembered for his wordsmithing:  He created the words scientist and physicist by analogy with the word artist; they soon replaced the older term natural philosopher. He coined other useful words to help his friends: biometry for John Lubbock; Eocine, Miocene and Pliocene for Charles Lyell; and for Michael Faraday, anode, cathode, diamagnetic, paramagnetic, and ion (whence the sundry other particle names ending -ion).


Written by LW

May 24, 2015 at 1:01 am

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