The Northwest Passage That Might Have Been

 SundayReview | Opinion

The Northwest Passage That Might Have Been

By BRIAN CASTNERMARCH 10, 2018

 

An artistic rendering of explorers seeking the Northwest Passage. Credit Historical Picture Archive/Corbis, via Getty Images

In the summer of 1789, a young fur trader named Alexander Mackenzie led an expedition in search of a Northwest Passage. He and his voyageurs and Chipewyan guides were attempting, 14 years before Lewis and Clark, to cross North America, paddling birch bark canoes down a river they hoped would pierce the Rocky Mountains. Mackenzie was a businessman who wanted to speed the pace of trade by connecting New York and China via an interior passage through the continent. He did find such a route, without knowing it. Mackenzie died thinking he was a failure, when he was really just 200 years early.

Some ideas are fantastically ahead of their time. In 1636, René Descartes created contact lenses, using glass tubes filled with water; unfortunately, the wearer was unable to blink. Charles Babbage invented digital “difference engines” — essentially modern programmable computers but powered by steam — in the 1820s. And Kodak developed digital cameras in 1974 but discarded the product idea because it thought no one wanted to look at photos on televisions…