Technology, History, and Place

Quick thought: History and rocketry

Demo-2 rocket launch

The Demo-2 mission lifts off from Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 30, 2020. (Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.)

Almost two months ago, SpaceX and NASA launched a rocket with two astronauts on board from Florida to the International Space Station. The mission, dubbed Demo-2 or “Launch America,” got a lot of media coverage, in a media landscape that was desperate to talk about literally anything besides the Coronavirus pandemic that had brought economic and social life to a standstill in the United States and much of the rest of the world.

Even without Coronavirus, Demo-2 likely still would have gotten plenty of attention. Not only was this the first time astronauts were launched into space from the United States since the Space Shuttle was retired nine years ago, it was also a very cool mission. The rocket was a SpaceX Falcon 9, which has a reusable first stage that lands tail-first on a barge in the ocean. (Except for the Solid Rocket Boosters of the Space Shuttle, first stages of rockets generally fall into the ocean and are never recovered.) The spacecraft that the astronauts rode in, SpaceX Dragon, has a sleek interior design that seems to have gotten aesthetic inspiration from Star Trek.

Both NASA and SpaceX had public affairs announcers that covered the mission, and they gushed about how this mission was “one for the history books,” and similar phrases. This was the first time that a private company had launched astronauts to the International Space Station (albeit with funding and lots of other support from NASA), but otherwise I’m not sure what was really historic about the mission. As David Edgerton points out in The Shock of the Old (2007), rocketry on the whole hasn’t been all that significant in human history. Just because something is visible to the public—in this case, through newspapers, broadcast television, Life magazine, National Geographic, NASA.gov, Twitter, and YouTube—doesn’t mean that it is historically significant. I would add that coolness also does not equal historical significance.

If anything, the Demo-2 mission was one for the space trivia books, not history books. I doubt that anybody but space enthusiasts will remember that this mission even happened 10 or 20 years from now.

Mike Mulligan, Mary Anne, and History of Technology

It turns out that one of my favorite children’s books growing up is a story about history of technology, although I didn’t realize this until I was an adult.

The book is Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, written by Virginia Lee Burton in 1939. In the book, Mike Mulligan owns an anthropomorphized coal-powered steam shovel named Mary Anne. For years, Mike and Mary Anne had been at the top of their game, digging canals, building highways, and excavating the foundations for skyscrapers. But then along come newer, fancier shovels powered by diesel, gasoline, and electricity. Mike starts to have trouble getting work for Mary Anne, because old-fashioned steam shovels are no longer wanted at construction sites.

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel cover

The cover of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton. © Houghton Mifflin Company.

Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne

Mike Mulligan with his steam shovel Mary Anne.

Gasoline, electric, and diesel shovels

The new gasoline, electric, and diesel shovels that replace steam shovels.

Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne outside a construction site with "No Steam Shovels Wanted" written on the fence.

Mary Anne and Mike Mulligan, out of work and out of luck.

At length, Mike finds a job digging the foundation for the town hall of Popperville, a small town a long ways away from the big cities. At the end of the job, Mary Anne gets stuck in the basement of the town hall, because Mike had neglected to leave an exit for the steam shovel in his his haste to dig the foundation. Mary Anne ends up staying there and being repurposed as the boiler for the heating system of the building.

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel is a story of technological change and adaptive reuse. The introduction of gasoline, diesel, and electric shovels represents technological change. With the newer, higher-tech shovels available, steam shovels come to be seen as obsolete and undesirable.

What to do with obsolete technology? One solution is just to throw it away. That happens to many other steam shovels; on one page of the book, Mary Anne and Mike look down in horror into a ravine where other steam shovels have been dumped to go to rust. “Mike loved Mary Anne,” the book says. “He couldn’t do that to her.”

Mike and Mary Anne looking down at junked steam shovels

Mike and Mary Anne looking aghast at junked steam shovels, the sad fate of many obsolete machines.

A technology considered obsolete in a high-profile market might still be useful in a marginal market. I have written plenty about how supposedly obsolete technologies like ox-driven plows and VCDs live on in the Garo Hills of northeast India (or at least did ten years ago). In the same way, Mike could find work for Mary Anne in a small town, Popperville, after being pushed out of higher-profile markets like canal-building and skyscrapers.

At the end of the book, Mary Anne finds a more meaningful retirement than rusting to oblivion: as a steam heater in the Popperville town hall foundation that she dug. This is an example of adaptive reuse – finding new uses for old things that can no longer be used for their original purpose. Adaptive reuse provides a sense of continuity and is an example of what Kevin Lynch calls “wasting well.”

I would like to think that I first learned the value of adaptive reuse from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel as a child. Whatever the case, adaptive reuse is a value worth learning, for children and adults alike.

Mary Anne serving as steam-heater for the Popperville town hall.

In her new role as steam-heater for the Popperville town hall, Mary Anne has lost her treads and the red walls of her cab, but she retains her front boom and anthropomorphic bucket, creating a sense of continuity and a reminder of her past life as a steam shovel.

Bartletts Ferry Dam

Dams of the Chattahoochee

As a follow-up to my two previous posts about dams in Alabama, here is a post about dams on another southeastern river, the Chattahoochee.

The Chattahoochee River starts in the Appalachian Mountains of northern Georgia and flows southward along the border of Georgia and Alabama to Florida. There are several dams along the river between Georgia and Alabama. Since the stateline runs along the west side of the river, these dams are technically not in Alabama, which is why I didn’t include them in my gallery of Alabama dams.

My exploration of the Chattahoochee River was not comprehensive, but here are the dams I was able to see, from north to south.

Just north of I-85, the highway between Montgomery and Atlanta, West Point Dam forms a big reservoir on the Chattahoochee. The dam is a US Army Corps of Engineers project. Its construction was authorized in 1962; the lake began filling in 1974 and the power station came online the following year.

As a postwar earthen dam, West Point Dam is not much to look at, but it is more accessible than the Alabama Power dams because it is public property. There is a visitor center on the site, and visitors can take a look at the turbine hall from a viewing gallery. The entire dam is remotely operated from Walter F. George Dam, ninety miles downstream.

West Point Dam powerhouse and spillway

View of the powerhouse and spillway of West Point Dam, with part of the long embankments on either side that form West Point Lake.

West Point Dam and Powerhouse dedication plaque (1975)

Dedication plaque of West Point Dam.

West Point Dam generator hall

Interior view of the generator hall of West Point Dam.

From Valley, Alabama to Columbus, Georgia, the Chattahoochee passes through the Fall Line, where the river descends steeply from the Appalachian piedmont to the coastal plain. Small dams on the river in Valley and Columbus used to divert water into textile mills, before the mills closed.

Langdale Mill in Valley, Alabama

The Langdale Mill in Valley. The dam for the mill is out of sight behind the trees in the background.

Georgia Power, a private electric utility, operates a cluster of dams downstream from Valley. Columbus Electric and Power Company built Bartletts Ferry Dam in 1924-1925, and Georgia Power took it over in 1930. Georgia Power modified the dam after World War II, raising the dikes on either side of the dam and adding a fourth generator and buttresses to the spillways. Another phase of modifications in the eighties added a second powerhouse with two additional generators. As the dam stands now, it looks similar to the Alabama Power dams on the Tallapoosa and Coosa rivers.

Bartletts Ferry Dam

Panoramic view of Bartletts Ferry Dam, which forms Lake Harding on the Chattahoochee River.

The original powerhouse of Bartletts Ferry Dam, built 1924-1925 and expanded after World War II.

The original powerhouse of Bartletts Ferry Dam, built 1924-1925 and expanded after World War II.

The next dam downstream is Goat Rock Dam, built in 1912. According to the Georgia Power website, the dam was named after a family of goats that used to cross the river by hopping from rock to rock!

Goat Rock Dam on the Chattahoochee, mostly blocked by trees

Goat Rock Dam, mostly obscured by trees.

Oliver Dam, built in 1959, is visible from the US-80 highway bridge on the north side of Columbus, Georgia.

Oliver Dam partially obscured by trees

Oliver Dam on the Chattahoochee upstream of Columbus.

The number of dams on the Chattahoochee is actually decreasing. In 2012 and 2013, the city of Columbus removed two dams that had diverted water into the city’s textile mills: Eagle & Phenix Dam and City Mills Dam. Since the mills had been closed for some time, the city removed the dams in order to restore whitewater along a stretch of the river. When I visited Columbus in 2013 to check out the progress at Eagle & Phenix, I found that the dam was all gone and whitewater was churning where the dam used to be. The old powerhouse was still there, and some of the ductwork had been left in place. A formerly inaccessible island had been developed into a park. I was gratified to see that some restoration work had been done on the river, but the old industrial heritage hasn’t been removed entirely either.

The old textile dams of Valley are also in their last days. Georgia Power has started to go through the bureaucratic process to remove two small dams, Langdale and Riverview, once their licenses expire in 2023.

Eagle & Phenix Mills powerhouse in 2011

The powerhouse of Eagle and Phenix Mills, seen in 2011 before the dam was removed.

Little Chattahoochee island before Eagle & Phenix Dam removal

An island adjacent to the Eagle & Phenix Dam, before the dam’s removal.

Little Chattahooche island after removal of Eagle & Phenix Dam

The same site in 2013, after the removal of the dam. The island in the previous picture is now a park.

Eagle & Phenix Mills ductwork

Some preserved ductwork in the Eagle & Phenix Mills powerhouse.

Whitewater on the Chattahoochee

Whitewater at the former site of the Eagle & Phenix Dam.

Eagle & Phenix Dam remnants

Remnants of the Eagle & Phenix Dam next to the restored stretch of river.

Eagle & Phenix Mills

The former Eagle & Phenix Mills.


Page 1 of 40

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén