Science  /  Retrieval

Tom Paine’s Bridge

We do not often think of Paine as a revolutionary inventor. But in a very real sense, that is what he believed himself to be.

As I started reading Paine, I found myself drawn in an unexpected direction, albeit one that in a weird way validated what those undergrads were telling me some years ago. Paine spent most of the final twenty years of his life pursuing answers to an extraordinary technological problem. The problem was simply this: how do you create a reliable, sturdy, weather-resistant bridge that can span rivers without impeding water traffic? What a mundane problem to occupy the author of The Rights of Man.

And yet the problem was anything but mundane. Paine’s world was a water world. Everything traveled more quickly and more cheaply by water. Where there were no rivers or seas there was little of anything else. What farmers and trappers and miners and other producers could bring to market depended on ready access to water transport. We do not generally think of the Connecticut River or the Schuylkill River or the James River as hugely important commercial arteries. But in the eighteenth century they were. If you stood on their banks in the right season, you would see logs bound together as huge rafts, fifty and sixty foot dugout canoes loaded with deerskins or dried fish, and small sailing craft carrying grain, livestock, or tobacco.

If you lived, say, in the far northwestern corner of Connecticut—hardly a remote place—you may as well have lived in Siberia. (Actually, you might have been better off in Siberia. The Russians had developed an enormous and well-traveled network of post roads—maintained by state-owned serfs—stretching from Lake Baikal in Siberia to St. Petersburg. Interestingly, these were more efficient arteries during the long winters when horse pulled sledges could glide across what would otherwise be wet, boggy terrain.). Getting anything to market—you would probably head to the river town of Hartford—would have involved a treacherous journey across barely maintained trails, usually unable to accommodate any kind of cart or carriage and all but impassible in the winter months. If, heaven forbid, you should stumble upon the swollen Housatonic or Farmington Rivers, you would hope to find a ferryman nearby and you would hope he knew and liked you and was happy to take a few pounds of grain or a few deer skins for his services. You would also hope the weather cooperated. Storms and spring ice made river crossings a deadly business.