Today, we try to kill a city. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Hitler set out to bomb London
into submission in 1940. He failed. Then we set out
on a much larger scale to bomb German cites into
submission. They kept right on going until our
armies walked into Berlin. When we tried to bomb
Hanoi into submission we lost Viet Nam. Even
Hiroshima is still a living city. Cities are oddly
indestructible, and we need to ask why.
Historian J. W. Konvitz tells how, ever since we've
had airplanes, analysts have been telling generals
that their bombs could destroy cities. A 1931
expert flatly said that cites were too fragile to
weather aerial assaults -- they were too dependent
on transportation and supply systems, on
electricity and plumbing. A 1938 British book,
The Air Defence of Britain, announced
London's vulnerability. We read:
If it had been done deliberately, we couldn't
... have produced a social pattern ... more
favorable for aggression from the air. Our millions
are bottle-fed ... by a system ... so intricate,
and so haphazardly evolved, that once dislocated
beyond the power of immediate repair, they would be
as helpless as newborn babes ....
Of course London proved far tougher than that.
During the Blitz, parts of it kept functioning
without any essential utilities and with half the
housing gone. It seemed to defy all reason.
And yet, thirty years ago we dumped thirty million
pounds of explosives on Hanoi. That was a terrible
pasting, yet production there increased while it
was going on.
The experts, it seems, had looked at cities and
seen large machines. And, in that, they made the
same error that people too easily make when they
look at any machine. They saw only the gears. They
didn't see the human heart at its center.
Early in WW-II, British and American airmen argued
over how to bomb cities. The British favored
pattern-bombing. They meant to kill cities by
panicking their populations. They never expected to
run into courage like they themselves had shown
during the London Blitz.
The Americans made a more subtle error. We too
equated cities with machines, and we decided we had
only to put a wrench in the gears. We'd use
precision bombing to cut rail lines and destroy
Well, a city is a machine, indeed; but it's no
simple gear train. A city grows up in a symbiosis
with the people who shape it. Their determination
and resourcefulness are built into it. Throughout
WW-II, ball bearings kept on rolling out of
Schweinfurt. They stuttered, but they didn't stop.
German subs kept sailing from coastal cities just
as surely as Londoners had kept singing "Roll Out
the Barrel" during the Blitz.
Our machines are more than they seem to be. They
are a part of ourselves. And our cities -- well,
walk the sidewalks of lower Manhattan. Smell the
foods, hear the sounds, talk with passers-by.
Nothing will tell you as surely that a city is the
most wonderfully robust machine of all.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Konvitz, J.W., Why Cities Don't Die. American
heritage of Invention and Technology, Winter,
1990, pp. 58-63.
This is a substantially revised version of Episode 436.