Lancaster ’61 Discovers Ancient Canals

Donald Lancaster

Don Lancaster ’61 in the desert landscape near his home. Photo by Bee Lancaster of Synergetics.

STUDYING THE SYSTEM of ancient irrigation canals carved in the foothills of eastern Arizona has been the focus of author and engineer Donald “Don” Lancaster ’61 for the past four years. His work was recently featured in USA Today.

Trekking frequently through the wilderness near his home in Thatcher, Ariz., where he has lived for more than 30 years, Lancaster looks for caves or pockets of rainwater known as tinajas. On these walks, he became intrigued by unusual contours of stone and soil snaking out of high canyons. The canals, which look like ditches carved into the hillside, are about one yard wide and angle downward. He calls them “hanging canals.”

Lancaster collaborates with James A. Neely, professor emeritus of anthropology, University of Texas-Austin, who is an expert on ancient irrigation systems of the Southwest, Mexico, and Iran. They believe there are 21 distinct networks involving at least 40 miles of canals built by a highly developed society nearly 1,000 years ago. An extensive report on their findings was published in the Arizona Republic.

Reflecting on the influence of Lafayette on his life and career, Lancaster says: “Lafayette has one of the most outstanding undergraduate electrical engineering programs anyplace ever. Certainly one of the most profound and influential faculty members during my time was the legendary Finley Smith, associate professor of electrical engineering. Moving on to a major
university for my graduate work was a rude awakening.”

Lancaster is referring to the loss of small class sizes, intense interaction, obvious competence, strong sense of community, and the “genuine motivation and caring that clearly defined the outstanding hallmarks of the Lafayette faculty, without exception.”

An electrical engineering graduate, he holds a master’s from Arizona State University. During graduate school and afterward, he worked for Goodyear Aerospace Corp.

Lancaster is credited as one of the fathers of the PC based on his invention of the TV typewriter featured in Radio-Electronics magazine in 1973. He is the author of 45 books on a wide variety of scientific and popular topics, including two million-sellers, and more than 2,000 technical papers.

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