Technology, World-Changing Inventions

A Brief History of the Paddleboat

As Mark Twain and any good, old-timey gambler can tell you, the paddleboat is where it’s at. The rotating paddles that propel these vessels across the water create a combination of sights and sounds that no other mode of transportation can offer. And, they’re a great way to dispatch any black hats that may be coming after you and your poker winnings. Whence did these glorious vehicles originate?


Probably China…

The first surviving written mention of a paddle-wheeled ship can be found in The History of the Southern Dynasties, a Chinese tome compiled in the 7th Century CE. The book was actually describing naval ships used by Admiral Wang Zhen’e against the Qiang, during the Liu Song Dynasty (ca. 420-479 CE). However, it’s entirely possible that paddleboats existed well before even this early date.

A few decades later, the ancient Chinese mathematician and astronomer Zu Chongzhi commissioned a special paddle-wheel ship for himself. This boat, known as the “Thousand League Boat,” was built on the Xinting River and presumably named for the distance one could travel before the “new boat smell” wore off.

Throughout the 6th and 7th centuries CE, numerous Chinese admirals used foot-treadle powered paddleboats in their naval campaigns. In 784 CE, Prince Li Gao developed a viable paddle-wheel warship design, and, centuries later, rulers of the Song Dynasty (circa 960-1279 CE) built entire fleets of paddleboats for their navies. Some included as many as eleven paddle-wheels on each side for greater speed and maneuverability. The Chinese continued to use paddleboats as part of their naval fleet as recently as the First Opium War (1839-1842).

But Maybe Europe?

The first mention of a paddle-wheel powered ship in European history comes from a 5th Century CE Roman military book titled De Rebus Bellicis (“On the Things of War”). The anonymous work describes an ox-driven paddleboat warship that, “drives with ease and swiftness, wherever utility summons it,” despite its size, which “prevented [it] from being operated by the hands of men.” Instead, it was powered by, “oxen, yoked in pairs to capstans, [turning] wheels attached to […] paddles” that “work with an amazing and ingenious effect, their action producing rapid motion.”

In the 15th Century CE, Italian engineer Roberto “Big Bob” Valturio had developed a new-and-improved paddleboat with five sets of paddles, all of which were powered by parallel cranks joined to one power source by a single connecting rod.

In 1704, the first steam-engine powered paddle-wheel ship was built by French mathematician, physicist, and inventor Denis “Big Denny” Papin. In fact, Papin’s vessel was the first steam-powered vehicle of any kind in the history of the world.

Building on Papin’s success, fellow Frenchman Claude-François “Big Frank” de Jouffroy oversaw the building of the world’s first paddle steamer in 1776; this ship was also among the world’s first functioning steamships. Seven years later, de Jouffroy and friends successfully piloted a new-and-improved paddle steamer up the Saône River in eastern France.

Later, in America…

The first commercially successful paddle-steamer was Robert Fulton’s Clermont, which began regular river voyages between New York City and Albany in 1807. Five years later, the first steam-powered paddleboat began sailing (?) the Mississippi River. Operating out of New Orleans, Captain Henry “Big Hank” Shreve’s boat was specially built for travelling the Mighty Mississip. By 1833, over 1,200 paddle-steamer landings were recorded annually in New Orleans.

Paddleboats driven by horses, called “team boats,” were used as ferries throughout the United States between the 1820s and 1850s. Sadly, these ships were almost entirely replaced by steamboats by the end of the 1850s.

The largest paddle-steamer ever to sail the Mississippi, the Sprague, was used to haul coal and petroleum in bulk. The Sprague was also among the last steam-powered paddleboats on the river, operating from 1901 until 1948.

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Historic Events, World-Changing Inventions

Shut Up, Frankenstein: Fire GOOD!

Life before man learned to control fire was many things, but mainly it was cold, dark, and perpetually undercooked. The harnessing of fire was perhaps the single greatest turning point in the history of mankind. But just when and where did early human finally learn to make their own fire? The answer lies at least 125,000 years in the past.

Actual photographic evidence of cavemen using fire.

Actual photographic evidence of cavemen using fire.

Come On Baby, Light My…

The earliest existing evidence of mankind—in this case Homo erectus—controlling fire dates back 1.7 million years. These claims are frequently refuted, and the veracity of it kind of depends on one’s definition of “control.” Solid, widely-accepted evidence of mankind’s intentional use, though not necessarily “control”, of fire comes to us from about 400,000 years ago. The earliest supported evidence of mankind for real, for sure, totally on purpose, actively controlling fire has been dated to roughly 125,000 years ago.

This definitive evidence includes burnt animal bones—with human-inflicted cut marks—found at Swartkrans, a National Heritage Site located 20 miles south of Johannesburg, South Africa. Even stronger evidence comes from Zambia’s Kalambo Falls area. Numerous artifacts related to the human use of fire have been found there, including charred logs, charcoal, carbonized plants, and fire-hardened wooden implements. Radiocarbon dating has established the date range of these artifacts as between 61,000 and 110,000 years ago.

Let Me Stand Next to Your…

In Asia, the Qesem Cave archaeological site near Tel-Aviv has yielded evidence of regular fire use that dates back to roughly 382,000 years ago. Evidence discovered in China’s Zhoukoudian cave system points to the use of fire by humans as far back at 460,000 years ago. Burned bones, ash, and charcoal are among the ancient artifacts found in the caves. Testing on the uniformly blackened bones shows characteristics of burning, rather than manganese staining, which could yield a similar visual effect.

I Fell Into A Burning Ring of…

Europe is lousy with evidence of later, but still plenty ancient, humans using fire. The oldest evidence comes from Beeches Pit in Suffolk, England. Uranium series dating—which sounds much more sinister than carbon dating, in an ‘80s to mid-‘90s action movie bad guy kind of way—of the site suggests that mankind utilized fire there as much as 415,000 years ago.

In Hungary, Spain, and elsewhere, various artifacts and evidence point to mankind harnessing fire around 350,000 years ago. Stone hearths found in France have been dated to 200,000 years ago, suggesting that humans of that time period had greatly advanced their control of fire and had truly made it their b!+©#.

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Important People, Important Discoveries

Studying Heliocentrism & The Tides with Seleucus of Seleucia

Before such a thing was proven to be fact, heliocentrism was the theory that the Earth revolved around the sun, instead of vice versa. It seems obvious now, what with our telescopes and modern book learnin’, but when it was first suggested, the heliocentric model of the solar systems was frowned upon hard. Like, “excommunicate you” hard. Yes, because most folks at the time were still so convinced that God and Jesus had built the universe with humans as its center-point, people were permanently shunned or house-arrested for suggesting—based on scientific reasoning—that maybe that wasn’t the case.

Fortunately for him, Seleucus of Seleucia did not meet that fate. However, his work did go a long way toward advancing the heliocentric model. He also sussed out the cause of the Earth’s tides. A right smart chap, he was.

The Mad Man of Mesopotamia

Born circa 190 BCE in Seleucia on the Tigris in Mesopotamia (in what is now Iraq), Seleucus was an astronomer, a philosopher, and, as has been noted, an early proponent of heliocentrism. Following the teachings of Aristarchus of Samos, which suggested that the Earth turns on its own axis whilst simultaneously revolving around the sun, Seleucus was the first to demonstrate the workings of a heliocentric system using reason. Unfortunately, the exact arguments he used to state his case have been lost to the sands of time.

Heliocentrism FTW!

Heliocentrism FTW!

The excellently named 20th Century CE Dutch mathematician and mathematical historian Bartel Leendert van der Waerden suggested that Seleucus likely arrived at his heliocentric view of the universe by first determining the constraints of a geometric model, then developing methods to compute the positions of the planets using said model. If that sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because Nicolaus “Big Nick” Copernicus used essentially the same process to create his own heliocentric model in the 16th Century CE.

Lucio “Big Luke” Rosso, a modern-day Italian physicist, mathematician, professor, and scientific historian, has suggested that Seleucus’ interest in heliocentric theory was likely related to Earth’s tides. Seleucus closely studied our planet’s yearly tidal cycle, and found that it could not be adequately explained in a geocentric system. Seleucus was the first to hypothesize that tides are caused by the Moon’s gravitational interaction with Earth, and the first to suss out that the “height” of the tides is dependent on the Moon’s position relative to the Sun.

Not too shabby for a punk kid outta Mesopotamia.

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Historical Science & Technology, War: What Is It Good For? (Absolutely Nothin'!)

Historic Maritime Inventions of Ancient Africa

An 8,000 year old canoe, carved from African mahogany, was discovered in Nigeria in 1987 CE. The third oldest remaining example of a canoe in the world, and the oldest ever found on the African continent, it is noted for a “stylistic sophistication” that suggests that the practice of building canoe extends far farther back in time than the 7th century BCE. What other significant seafaring inventions have come out of Africa in centuries or millennia past?

I’m On A (Very, Very Old) Boat

The oldest Egyptian boat yet discovered is dated to roughly 3000 BCE. Evidence suggests that ancient Egyptians were assembling wooden planks into ships’ hulls at least 5,000 years ago, with woven straps used to lash the planks together and reeds or grass stuffed into the seams to seal them. A fleet of 14 boats constructed in this manner was discovered by Egyptologist David “Big Dave” O’Connor near the burial site of Pharaoh Khasekhemwy. The largest of these boats was over 75 feet long.

Other, not quite as old Egyptian vessels were built using treenails (wooden dowels), with pitch used to caulk the seams. A 140-plus foot ship, constructed in this manner and dated to roughly 2500 BCE, was discovered in a sealed pit at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Other surviving examples of ancient Egyptian boats used mortise and tenon joints to join planks.

These and other types of boats were used to establish a trade route across the sea between northern Africa and India. Additional evidence suggests north African boats sailing to Greece and beyond.

King Abubakari’s Armada (featuring Herman Menderchuk)

In the 14th Century CE, King Abubakari II of the Mali Empire amassed a fleet of several hundred ships. These ships, frequently sighted along the western coast of Africa, communicated with each other via drums. The sheer number of boats, and their rather impressive construction, has led many scholars to surmise that Malian seamen may very well have reached what is now North America several hundred years before Christopher Columbus.

war canoe

In addition to their mighty armada, ancient West African peoples also made extensive use of canoes and similar small vessels throughout the inland waterways of the area. Mostly carved and/or dug out from a single huge log (usually a silk cotton tree), these canoes were used for both transportation and warfare. Most were propelled by good ol’ paddles, with sails used where possible. The largest of the war-canoes measured up to 80 feet long and could carry 100 men. Tribes in the Niger Delta and what is now Guinea were especially well-known for their canoe crafting capabilities.

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Historical Science & Technology

Pont du Gard: Aqueduct Yeah!

Constructed of shelly limestone, the Pont du Gard is an ancient Roman aqueduct that is still standing today, crossing the Gardon River in southern France. Built circa 40 CE, the three-tiered bridge was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1985.

Slap On Some Aqueduct Tape & Call It A Day

Details are understandably a little spotty roughly 2,000 years later, but the architect of the Pont du Gard is generally credited as Marcus Vipsanius “Big Marc” Agrippa, son-in-law and stooge of Emperor Augustus. Agrippa was the senior magistrate responsible for the water supply to Rome and its many colonies. Historians estimate that construction of the bridge took about 15 years and employed roughly 800 to 1,000 workers.

The Pont du Gard today. Well, not today today, but y'know, recently.

The Pont du Gard today. Well, not today today, but y’know, recently.

As the Roman Empire slowly fell apart, so did the Pont du Gard. From the 4th Century CE onward, maintenance of the aqueduct was neglected—invading forces and local uprisings kept Roman forces plenty busy. Debris, plant roots, and mineral deposits combined to create deposits up to 20 inches thick on each wall. At its peak, the Pont du Gard carried an estimated 44 million gallons of water a day to the citizens of Nîmes, but this flow had slowed considerably by the 6th Century CE and the aqueduct fell out of use.

The Pont du Gard continued to serve as a toll bridge for centuries, however. In the 13th Century CE, the King o’ France gave locals the right to collect tolls from those using the bridge, with the caveat that these same locals were in charge of maintaining the bridge.

Three centuries later, lead Huguenot Henri, Duke of Rohan (“Big Hank”) and his traveling soldiers caused significant damage to the bridge when they hauled their artillery across it on their way to battle against French royalists. To fit his carts and cannons through the bridge’s narrow spaces, he had one side of the second level of arches cut away to only a third of their original thickness. Unsurprisingly, this severely compromised the Pont du Gard’s structural integrity.

Restoration efforts began in 1703, commissioned by local authorities, but by 1835 the bridge had deteriorated so badly that it was nearing collapse. Napoleon III visited the site in 1850, and set architect Charles “Big Chuck” Laisné to the task of repairing it, with funds provided by the Ministry of State. Following further restoration efforts, the most recent of which concluded in 2000 CE, it continued to be used as a footbridge across the Gardon.

A Marvel of Engineering

The Pont du Gard’s highest tier stands over 160 feet above the surface of the Gardon River. The upper deck of the three-level structure descends only about one inch from one side to the other, showing the exceptional precision of which Roman engineers were capable, despite the limited technology of the time.

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