Frank Tinsley/Mechanix Illustrated

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

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":

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A young refugee from Kosovo stands in front of a map of Hungary with her teacher.

    Who Maps the World?

    Too often, men. And money. But a team of OpenStreetMap users is working to draw new cartographic lines, making maps that more accurately—and equitably—reflect our space.

  2. Design

    The Seductive Power of a Suburban Utopia

    Serenbe, an intentional community outside Atlanta, promises urban pleasures without the messiness of city life.

  3. Transportation

    An 'Instant Bridge' Collapses Near Miami, and Many Questions Remain

    Florida International University’s new pedestrian bridge was state-of-the-art. On Thursday, the new span failed, killing six.

  4. Transportation

    The EU Is Giving Teens a Month of Free Train Travel Across Europe

    The cultural enrichment plan could change young lives, and maybe even revive the heyday of the Interrail train pass.

  5. Design for an accessory dwelling unit in Portland, Oregon

    Portland's 'Granny Flats' Get an Affordable Boost

    A new startup pays the upfront cost of a backyard dwelling in exchange for some of the rent it generates.