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How Rube Goldberg Would Have Watered the West

Who needs pipelines when massive hydro-cannons could blast water across California’s deserts?
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(Courtesy of Matt Novak)

(Courtesy of Matt Novak)

Los Angeles has always been short of water, and rarely more so than in the 1940s. In that decade, wartime industries boomed and the city’s population grew to nearly 2 million people. Water use shot up 59 percent.

Construction engineer Sidney Cornell had a unique idea to fix the city’s water woes: hydro-cannons. The October 1951 issue of Mechanix Illustrated magazine included a drawing by legendary futurism illustrator Frank Tinsley that showed Cornell’s plan in action. As the magazine described, man-made geysers would shoot water from “the mouth of one into the funnel of the next,” in a streaming 400-mile-per-hour arc. The arc would be 6 to 12 inches wide, its trajectory adjusted to match terrain. The aquatic artillery would be built at 1-mile intervals between Los Angeles and Northern California (where water was, and is, much more plentiful). Cornell figured each of the 400 stations would cost $300,000 — and he only needed $30,000 for a pilot plant to test his theory. As far as we can tell, he never received any funding.

Today, much of Los Angeles’s water still arrives through a 99-year-old, 233-mile aqueduct that originates in the Sierra Nevada. And water officials are still looking for a better idea.

This article appeared in the May-June issue of Pacific Standard under the title “Super Soakers.”