No. 690: The Ginaca Machine

by John H. Lienhard

Today, a machine keeps a gentle land from being gobbled up — but only for a while. The University of Houston’s College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1951, a young woman took me to a fancy luau at the University of Oregon. It was peculiar culture shock for me. Half the college students from Hawaii studied in Oregon. My left-brain focus was ill-fitted to the easy-going rhythm of the event. I still had much to learn.

Ukeleles and steel guitars nattered on cheerfully in 8/8 time. Everyone wore shorts or muumuus. And the food! It was roast pork and pineapple — poi washed down with pineapple — pineapple juice and gin. I never saw so much pineapple.

Less than sixty years before, Queen Liliuokalani had ruled Hawaii. She was a poet and composer, but not much of a manager. Hawaiian and American members of the so-called Annexation Club managed to depose her and ask the United States to annex Hawaii.

Hawaii became a U.S. Territory in 1900. The mainland was a huge market for her pineapples and sugar. She became a market for our manufactured goods.

Now think about the armor-plated pineapple. A skilled operator, with coring and slicing machinery, could cut up 10 or 15 a minute. Pineapple canning was absolutely limited by the rate a human could core, peel, juice, and slice a pineapple. And then, all the juice near the skin was wasted.

In 1911, James Dole of Dole pineapple fame went to a Hawaiian designer named Henry Ginaca. He asked for a machine that could do all that. Ginaca provided the first so-called “Ginaca Machine” that year.

With Ginaca’s creation, pineapple through-flow jumped to 50 a minute. By 1925, improvements had increased that to 105 a minute. And machines made in 1925 are still in use today.

The 1925 Ginaca Machine is a wonderful complex thing. It’s a profusion of gears, chains, cams, cutters, and corers. Few engines of our ingenuity reach their final form as quickly as this one did.

Nor can you find many machines that affect a place so profoundly. They gave the Islands financial strength. Now, of course, Hawaii has all but quit growing pineapples. She has, instead, sold herself to tourists.

I realize now that the luau I went to in Oregon was the last real Hawaiian luau I would ever see. From now on, the Islands themselves will be defined by Japanese and American tourists with no more innate sense of repose than I had in 1951.

Once those machines allowed Hawaii to define herself. Now the last Ginaca machines, still chopping up a few remaining pineapples, are historical curiosities. An era has ended.

I’m John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

The Ginaca machine is described in an Historical Mechanical Engineering Designation Nomination form prepared by J. Grogan of the Hawaii ASME Section. The ASME is now in the process of designating the Ginaca Machine as an International Landmark.

I am grateful to the Rev. E. Joan Lepley, who was raised among the Hawaiian pineapple canneries. She provided first-hand comments and expertise. Then she added this: “When I started to think about those machines again, the machine form did not come back, but the smell of fresh pineapple, the racket, and the warmth all came back — as well as the sight of stacks of boxes of freshly picked fruit, and the conveyor belt that took the processed pineapple down the line of women workers. Lines of ultra-shiny cans clattering along… (pineapple requires super-tinned cans because it is so highly acidic)… stacks of colorful labels… flapping cardboard forms into boxes …”

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
No. 690: The Ginaca Machine

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