Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011

John Henry vs. the Steam Drill

For those who need a refresher on this American folk icon, the story goes like this: During the 1800s, railroads started to snake across the U.S., and bands of men would smooth out the land by driving stakes into rock with a big ole hammer (and then filling the holes with explosives). John Henry, an African American, was supposed to be the biggest — in spirit, in appetite, in the bulging of biceps — and best driver of all. When companies started to employ steam-powered drills to make better time, Henry decided to challenge one to a race. He won but, tragically, died of exhaustion following his miraculous feat. The story is based in fact, but the details change with the telling — how big Henry was, for example, or whether he was driving spikes or blasting rock. Regardless, his story remains the benchmark for the many human-machine battles since.