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Prototyping the Mississippi delta: Patents, alternative futures, and the design of complex environmental systems


The bird foot delta of the Mississippi River exists at the nexus of cultural and environmental forces. Attempts to build navigable channels through this dynamic deltaic landscape illustrate the tension between human necessity and transformation of river systems. Each channel cut through the delta served the dual function of facilitating navigation to the Mississippi’s epic inland waterway, while simultaneously expediting the movement of valuable sediment to ever-deeper water, ultimately robbing the delta and its environs of life-sustaining substrata. Technological innovation paralleled transformation of the delta, and as the navigable channels advanced, so too did the methods and devices used to rake, exhume, and define new paths for ships. This ‘modern’ history is strikingly well preserved in the geomorphology of the river as well as in the archives of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). A forensic look at patent documents for the period suggests that two unrealized site-specific inventions may have led to radically different futures for the delta through the engagement of fluvial processes and altered deposition of sediments.

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