Levees and dams form the fluvial geography of the technosphere. Landscape architect Richard Hindle shows how patents have historically catalyzed the establishment of these formations. His essay maps the Mississippi, Sacramento and San Joaquin River Deltas through the patent system, tracing how it helped transform what is and could have been possible along riverine and coastal systems.
More than 9 million patents have been granted in the United States since the establishment of the U.S. patent system in 1790 and an estimated 90 million patent documents now exist globally from the advent of patent law in fifteenth-century Italy A unique subset of the world’s patents relate to riverine, coastal, and large-scale marine systems ranging in scope and complexity from artificial seaweeds and armoring polypods to methods for redirecting river currents and managing floods through vast watersheds. Individually, each patent describes the unique function and configuration of a specific invention, yet in aggregate, they portray a complex narrative at the interface of land, sea, and the technosphere.
And, importantly, some of these inventions transcend the object-oriented predilections of technological progress by engaging large-scale environmental systems and dynamic processes. For example, the levee systems that now control flooding along American rivers such as the Mississippi the Sacramento, and San Joaquin, evolved through patent innovation after initially transferring technology from earlier European precedents Inventors developed novel levee-construction methods, including some of the earliest passive, ecological, and biomimetic technologies for levee construction before a mechanical process ultimately replaced less efficient or untested speculative ideas, transforming the hydrology of fast inland waterways. They also established valuable precedent for innovation in landscape infrastructure at the scale of regions and territories, using the legal, institutional, and representational mechanism of the patent systems to enact environmental change.
Obviously, the geographical dimensions of patent innovation and the scope of the marine technosphere extend beyond levees into oceans and vast networks of rivers, lakes, and urban watersheds. Yet, little is known about the geographical dimensions of patents and their impact on the marine technosphere beyond the externalities of industry and pressures of urbanization. In the following texts and images, I redraw and analyze historically significant patents issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in an attempt to understand their geographic dimensions and possible impact on riverine and coastal systems. Each patent includes geographical terminology and reference to specific places and regions, which I use to speculate on the scale and configuration of the proposed intervention. In one drawing per patent, I adapt claims and technical specifications to the geographical location described in the text, synthesizing historical research and maps with the “new” innovation disclosed in the patent. The images are, in a sense, ruminations of the potential for technology intentionally to reconfigure environmental systems.
Juan Bautista Medici was born in Piedmont, Italy, in 1843 and died in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1903. At fifty-seven years old, and after a lifetime’s work in civil and hydrologic engineering, Medici submitted his patent to the USPTO with the intention of reconfiguring the delta of the Mississippi River. Medici’s patent involves the anchoring of a subsurface “forest” or “orchard” of large, cut trees with variable depths relative to the surface to guide flowing water and capture sediment. The field or matrix of vertical trunks and branched canopy would alter the speed and direction of water by establishing a new bathymetry of tree canopies that define channels, islets, and bars at the river delta. The system invites us to imagine a vast deltaic landscape constructed on principles observed in naturally dynamic deltaic landscapes, yet designed to meet human necessity for navigation. Medici’s proposed structure is expansive, potentially extending for miles, and would function at a scale commensurate with the deltas of large rivers. When compared with conventional technologies for engineering of navigable channels, such as jetties and breakwaters, Medici’s proposal neglects the singular object and, therefore, precludes object-oriented description, evoking instead various conditions found in nature or other large-scale productive landscapes such as field, forest, orchard, plain, island, field, delta, etc.
Linus Weed Brown (1856‒1910) was appointed assistant engineer of the City of New Orleans in 1885 and chief engineer in 1892. In those capacities, he completed detailed topographical surveys of the city, including studies of precipitation and run-off and detailed proposals for a drainage system. In 1892, just as he was appointed chief engineer for New Orleans, he was also granted a patent for a “System of Protecting Riparian Lands from Overflow,” which advanced the art of flood management by using outlets or “waste weirs” along the lower Mississippi. Located at precise flood elevations along the river’s course, the weirs would carry floodwater to adjacent lakes, where it would be distributed naturally through the vast deltaic network of bayous and channels draining ultimately into the gulf. Brown suggested that his system be implemented at Lake Borgne and Lake Maurepas, and at as many river bends as necessary to distribute floodwaters effectively. Although the primary purpose of Brown’s invention was to protect low-lying lands from overflow, it might also have facilitated sediment recharge in a delta starved by levees.
On December 28, 1880, Newton Sewell (1821‒1902), a county assessor and landowner in Yuba, California, was granted US Patent 235,967, which describes a passive hydraulic method for levee formation through the construction of check dams within sediment-laden rivers. The dams would divert accumulated sediment to a series of settling enclosures that in turn would become a levee. Sewell’s patent for a “Method of Relieving River-Channels of Sediment and Forming Levees” utilizes the energy of rivers, local topography, and river sediment of the gold rush to build levees in California’s Central Valley. The design is topographical in nature, correlating the slopes of rivers, dam sequences, and sediment enclosures to the locations of levees. Sewell’s invention was conceived in the later years of hydraulic dredging practices for gold mining in the upper reaches and tributaries to the Sacramento and San Joaquin Delta (aka the California Delta)—a mining process that almost choked the delta and San Francisco Bay with sediment. During this period, an estimated 300 million cubic meters of sediment were moved by rivers and creeks from the Sierra Nevada Mountains into the Central Valley and San Francisco Bay—enough material to cover 380 square miles at a depth of one foot. Sewell’s design is noteworthy not only for its engineering of the intrinsic fluvial processes of rivers and for linking levee formation to topographical change in river systems, but also for its mastery of regional source‒sink sediment budgets in river systems by utilizing the sediment generated upstream, in the distant reaches of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to build levees downstream in the productive alluvial plains of the valley. The process is quite simple, utilizing a series of low-crested check-dams to raise the level of water and divert sediment-laden water into settling enclosures, allowing for levee formation at an increased height relative to the original elevation of the river. Once the levee has formed and the dam is removed, the river elevation recedes to normal and the levee remains elevated. When envisioned serially along the reaches of a river system, a mosaic of leveed lands can be envisioned, similar to the natural bars and highlands formed intrinsically by migrating rivers. Importantly, the system was developed for implementation along the rivers of central California, between the gold-rich lands of the Sierra Nevada and agriculturally productive lands of the California Delta, a statewide sediment-management plan disclosed in patent.
The geographical dimensions of patent innovation chronicle the ever-collapsing boundary between nature, artifice, techne, and environment. Today the patent is often associated with commerce and objects of manufacturing, but patent innovation has also played an important role in the transformation of large-scale and complex environmental systems. As we approach the environmental imperatives of the future, such as sea level rise and climate change, might the unique agency of patents become a projective tool for adaptation, re-wilding, resilience, and unforeseen opportunities resulting from the collision of urban, geologic, and oceanic forces? This is not entirely speculative, as the legal and institutional mechanism of the global patent system is surprisingly well equipped to promote sociotechnical and environmental innovation. And, in this context, one may argue that patents are singular in their capacity to advance the development of, and investment in, complex forms of infrastructure. The question moving forward is not if patents will continue to promulgate novel hybrids between land, sea, and the technosphere, but what form these new ecologies will take and who will invent them.