In 1807, the SS Clermont chuffed up the Hudson—and the entire world gasped in astonishment. The steamboat was the first ever commercially sucessful steam-powered transportation device, forever ending dependence on muscle or wind.
In 1807, water wheels were a familiar sight in the Capital District. The sheer bluffs here, such as the one on which RPI is perched, provided ample falls for the earliest industrial development. This area was blessed by easy water transportation for getting goods to market.
From our viewpoint, using paddle wheels for the boat is all too obvious, but at the time, Robert Fulton could have linked oars together—in a sense, a powered Roman galley—and produced a “steam-scull.” A paddle wheel is a water wheel in reverse. In a mill, moving water turns a wheel, producing power. On a boat, steam turns a wheel, paddling water backwards, propelling the ship forward. Analogous is an electric generator, converting rotary motion into electricity. Applying current makes it a motor, electrical energy becoming kinetic. This two-prong combination of water transportation and for power is commemorated by the name “RiverSpark”—a play on words. RiverSpark is the Troy-Cohoes urban cultural park (http://www.riverspark.org/), established by New York State Parks Recreation & Historical Preservation. It was here that rivers sparked the industrial revolution, and this urban park sits at the junction of the mighty rivers Hudson and Mohawk.
Among downtown Troy’s numerous buried treasures is the RiverSpark Visitor Center, located in the Burdett Building neighboring City Hall. Someday, to counter academia-overload, you can trot down the Approach and head due west on Broadway to Monument Square—which, in true Troy fashion, is actually a triangle. The Visitor Center is directly opposite. The Center houses a modest collection of artifacts relating to our area’s industrial heritage. Going downstairs, you pass under a full-size replica of a portion of the incredible Burden water wheel.
In 1852, Henry Burden, an inventor and industrialist, powered his south Troy iron works with the world’s largest water wheel. Dubbed the “Niagara of Water-wheels,” it produced upwards of 1,100 horsepower. At 62 feet in diameter (six stories high), its enormous size was made possible by its novel construction. Unlike wooden water wheels of yore, the Burden wheel used one to one-and-a-half inch iron rods in tension, like wire spokes in a bicycle wheel.
But the railroad came to Troy, and with it, Pennsylvania anthracite. Water power was passé. In 1862, Burden built a new coal-powered plant down by the tracks. The upper plant was abandoned and the walls collapsed, leaving the giant wheel standing silent sentry amidst the rubble. RPI students on field trips ooh-ed and aah-ed at this engineering marvel. Gawking up at this towering edifice, some must have imagined riding on it. Enter George Ferris, Class of 1881. For the Columbian Exposition in 1893, Ferris built a giant iron-spoked wheel for an amusement ride. He modestly named it, as I’m sure you know … the Ferris Coaster!