A Look Back at 1951's 'Big Squirt,' California's Improbable Drought Remedy Concept

Why not use a network of cannons to shoot water to parched farms? Oh, right – for lots of reasons.

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Frank Tinsley/Mechanix Illustrated

In 1951, Southern California entered its seventh straight year of drought. Lakes were solidifying into mud, wells were running low and farmers were, rightly, freaking the heck out. As the Milwaukee Sentinel put it, "A crisis may be several years away, but it is coming."

These bleak times called for bold ideas. Sidney Cornell, an engineer from Los Angeles, thought he had a winner. After surveying the rugged topography of his home state, and weighing the costs of building a new aqueduct, Cornell settled his laser beam of genius on one extraordinary notion: water cannons.

You can see the concept sketch of this dubious wonder above (and below) as it originally appeared in a 1951 Mechanix Illustrated. At the time, roughly five million people in SoCal were living in large part on H20 channeled in from across the Sierra Nevada mountains. Rather than troubling with the construction of another lengthy aqueduct, Cornell proposed building a line of substations that would shoot water from L.A. to northern California. Easy as that.

The water guns would work like a god-sized decorative garden fountain: One station would spurt a geyser of agua into the air at 400 m.p.s., where it would arc a mile over dry earth to come down solidly into the "funnel" of the next station. That building would spew the same payload into the mouth of the next one, etc., etc., until the life-saving water finally reached its destination, nice and aerated and containing only a handful of unlucky buzzards.

Cornell didn't see many problems with his mega-contraption. He estimated that the 400 stations needed to complete his gushing chain would cost $120 million, and was publicly seeking $30,000 in seed money to get started. To skeptics wondering how he'd get the water over mountains, the engineer replied that he'd just aim the jets higher. "The speed would be such that high winds would affect it little, and evaporation would be negligible, Cornell says," according to the Sentinel. "It would require a right-of-way similar to other utility lines."

It must've taken a lot of jaw-gritting impartiality to report that story. Apparently I'm not the only one who finds it hilarious to picture a 12-inch-thick rope of water knocking light aircraft out of the sky. At that wonderful repository of failed technology, Modern Mechanix, commenters have piled onto poor Cornell's idea. Here are a few of their criticisms:

Eli: Obviously designed by someone with no understanding of hydraulics and the spread of water from nozzles. And assuming that they made catch basins large enough to reduce loss from splashing and diffusion of the stream in the air, we’d still be looking at thousands of these things just to move water a a hundred miles. The power consumption would be incredible.

Toronto: “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. We’ll be flying at an altitude of 12,000 feet on this short hop to San Diego, and if I may… HOLY ORVILLE! What the Hell was that? Turn on the wipers, quick!”

rsterling78: I suppose that in 1951, word of that new-fangled “pipe technology” as a means of transporting water was not widely known about. How about transmitting electricity via a series of lightning bolt-hurling Tesla coils positioned one mile apart?

Roger: Since the cost of energy was apparently no object, perhaps they would freeze the water into giant bullet shaped molds to cut down on losses an improve accuracy.

And here's the second half of Frank Tinsley's illustration of the "Big Squirt":

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