an unrecorded sense of "suction"

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Tue Apr 21 23:21:43 UTC 2009

        Here is a passage showing that in the 1840s steamboatmen used the word "suction" for a phenomenon similar to that which today in automobile races is called "drafting".

        THE GREAT STEAMBOAT RACE.  The great race to Sing Sing and back was commenced, yesterday, at five minutes before eleven o'clock, everything in the way of preparation being ready on the part of both boats.  ***  At the first start, and for two or three miles, the C. Vanderbilt kept about half her length ahead.  Soon, however; the Oregon shot ahead, maintaining her distance with effort.  The Vanderbilt struck in to her wake, and lapping her slightly, had the advantage of what the steamboat men call her "suction," which is speed gained by the water displaced by the leading boat returning under her stern.  This is frequently a great advantage to the boat behind.  The Oregon endeavored to shake her off, so as not to give her this advantage, but although she occasionally shot slightly ahead, she did not accomplish the object.  ***
        When nearly opposite Harlem, (8 miles,) on her return, the Oregon's coal gave out.  Resort was, therefore, had to such variety of combustibles as could be found on board, such as the slats of the berths, gang-planks, and some old barrels.  [nonetheless, the Oregon won by about 2/3 of a mile]
        NY Morning Express, June 2, 1847, p. 2, col. 4

        The Oregon was a working boat, and had pluckily come from her usual run (to Stonington, Conn.) for the race, and left immediately after for her next run.  The C. Vanderbilt was a new boat.

Perhaps the passage from Hawthorne cited in 1d ("figurative" uses) was inspired by this sense, rather than the familiar one.

1851 HAWTHORNE Ho. Sev. Gables xvii, They had been drawn into the great current of human life, and were swept away with it, as by the suction of fate itself.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

The American Dialect Society -

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