This is the story of the canoe, that singular American artifact so little changed over time. Featured here are canoes old and new, from birch bark to dugout to carbon fiber; the people who made them; and the adventures they shared. With features of technology, industry, art, and survival, the canoe carries us deep into the natural and cultural history of North America.
Inventors have struggled to make canoes feel more stable for years and years. Sponsons, which are essentially buoyant pieces attached to the gunwales, were a common answer, including this attempt by D. P. Tuck from 1900.
Floats projecting from the boat apparently weren't a desirable solution for F. W. Zeidler and C. Halpern, who in 1921 came up with a system to rotate the canoeist, rather than add to the exterior of the boat. In terms of catching on, this patent did not.
Stability wasn't the only concern for inventors and shade-tree tinkerers. Portability, which did not seem to be a problem for native American builders, couldn’t be left alone by the mid-and-late 1800s. V. Colvin patented a canoe that rolled into a giant tube in 1874.
V. Colvin’s giant Tootsie Roll-shape was one of several attempts at a packable canoe. W. Armstrong, six years later, designed a folding canoe that fit in a handy carrying pouch. It also had oarlocks attached to outriggers.
The human-powered engineering movement of the late 19th century might be mostly known for perfecting the bicycle. In 1896, R. L. Boulter cross-bred a canoe and a bike to come up with a bicycle boat, or boats, depending on how you looked at it. Perhaps it was a distant relation to paddleboats of the 20th century.