Today, we try to kill a city, but we can't do it.
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.
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. We might well ask why.
From the beginning, analysts have told generals
that their bombs could destroy cities. A 1931
expert said that cites were too fragile to weather
aerial assaults -- that they were too dependent on
transportation and supply systems -- on electricity
and plumbing. A 1938 English 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 newborn babes ....
Of course London proved far tougher than that.
Parts of it kept functioning without any essential
utilities and with half the housing gone. It seemed
to defy all reason.
So, 20 years ago we dumped 30 million pounds of
explosives on Hanoi. That was a terrible pasting,
Yet production increased while it was going on. How
could that be!
The predictors, it seems, had looked at cities and
seen large machines. But they made the same error
most people make when they look at a machine. They
saw only the gears. They didn't see the human heart
at its center.
Early in WW-II, English and American airmen argued
over how to bomb cities. The English favored
pattern-bombing. They meant to kill the city by
panicking its population. They never expected to
run into courage like they'd shown during the
We made a more subtle error. We also thought cities
were like machines. All we had to do was to put a
wrench in the gears -- use precision bombing to cut
rail lines and destroy factories.
Well, a city is a machine, 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. Our
machines are a part of ourselves. And our cities --
well! They're the most wonderfully robust machines
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 episode has been considerably revised as
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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