On The Technology Trail Of Lewis And Clark

Lewis and Clark, were not quaint historical figures in their day.  They were heroes, explorers and adventurers on the leading edge of technology.  They were who people clamored to read about, scanned the news for, and dreamed of.  The team took with them the latest and greatest tech and the best outdoor equipment, just as those who stand on the edge of our own horizons and look out do, anxious to discover and utilize what they find.

When a couple of our favorite cable TV alligator hunters went after a 10-footer from a tiny boat they called a “pirogue,” the Cajuns knew that their lives were almost at as much as risk as the lives of the ‘gator’s. What they didn’t know was that they were relying on a technology that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark used when they set out on the first transcontinental expedition to the Pacific Coast.

Today’s alligator hunters in the bayous of Louisiana often turn to the traditional pirogue when they need to fish smaller bodies of water. The craft has evolved a lot from what Lewis and Clark referred to as pirogues in the diaries of their expedition.

Those explorers launched their travel with the benefit of two pirogues. They were large rowboats with sails and the expedition filled them with cargo as they traveled from the mouth of the Missouri River up to the Mandan villages in central North Dakota. One of pirogues was also used as the command vessel on the return trip all the way to St. Louis, so it seems they were significantly larger than today’s pirogues.

This is just one example of technology that Lewis and Clark used when President Jefferson sent them out to find river passages and see exactly what he had bought with the Louisiana Purchase. You may have used or benefitted from some of these technologies yourself. Check these out:

Air Rifles

Not long ago expert shots from around the world were hoisting high tech air rifles and shooting the eyes out of little targets set 10 meters away. The weapons had enough advanced bells and whistles on them that they would have looked at home on a Star Wars movie set.

Even today, advanced firearms can sometimes be a little touchy. It was no different in the 17th century when Meriwether Lewis found that conditions weren’t always ideal for his air rifle technology. In June of 1805 he wrote that they had to find a blacksmith “to repair some of our arms, particularly my Airgun, the main spring of which was broken.”

Candle Lantern

The expedition carried a number of candle lanterns, which seems entirely appropriate for the era. They were encased in metal and could be opened from either side to shine the candle light. I suppose you could call these one-candle light lanterns.

Backpackers today are relying on essentially the same technology. However, now we want to shed every possible ounce when we hit the trail so heavy metal cases are certainly out the window. Products like the Uco Micro candle lantern are made from lightweight aluminum, can burn up to four hours on one candle and weigh only 4.2 ounces—including two candles.


After having been on the trail for a little more than a year, Lewis and Clark decided to store some of their excess provisions and heavier items. They dug a whole and made a cache for the supplies. They took great care to make sure everything was dried and properly stored so it would last for several years.

Hiding items away in the wilderness in caches is common today. Some backpackers use the strategy for long trips, but even more common is “geocaching,” an activity where someone puts a cache somewhere and others navigate to it using their GPS equipment.

Camera Obscura

This invention dates to around 1600. Light comes through a pinhole and projects an image of whatever is in front of the camera. The person using the camera can then trace the image. Some speculate that Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (The Girl With the Pearl Earring) used a camera obscura. While the camera is referred to on the Lewis and Clark expedition. The following video shows how they might have used it to record things on their expedition.

Today, modern artists continue to experiment with the camera obscura, or pinhole camera. Rather than tracing the image, they project it onto various kinds of films to create negatives. The images have a pure and primitive feel that cannot be achieved with modern equipment.


As one might guess, the basic magnetic compass was vitally important to the Louis and Clark expedition. The Smithsonian Museum has the actual compass William Clark used during the adventure. One of the major charges of the expedition was to survey the territory. It was a laborious job and took a lot of time to accomplish. Today, of course, there’s an app for that: iCompass Surveying.

Imagine how much more quickly the three-year journey could have gone had they only had an iPhone along with them!

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Paul Moore is an avid enthusiast of the North Dakota area with all its history and all its future.  He works with http://bakkenresidencesuites.com/ to match quality corporate housing to companies with a large influx of the labor force in this thriving state.