Today, we beat an odd old cannon into a plowshare.
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.
I want to talk with you
older listeners from big cities. The rest of you?
Well, listen along. This could be interesting.
I was raised in the Twin Cities, St. Paul and
Minneapolis, in the 1930s. Both had old armory
buildings of red brick and stone. Your city had a
fortress with loopholes and turrets, too. For me,
the word armory will always call up one of those
medieval castles with its fairy-tale proportions
Those were National Guard headquarters.
Fortress-like armories sprouted in most American
cities after railway workers went on strike in
Martinsburg, West Virginia, in 1877. That bloody
business soon spread rioting to all the big rail
Workers had formed labor unions after the Civil War
in response to industrialization gone berserk.
Cities came to fear their own workers. They feared
immigrants. Protection turned from common sense
into a new belief system. One would-be religious
magazine had this to say after the 1877 strike:
If the club of the policeman, knocking out the
brains of the rioter, will answer, then well and
good; ... [If not] then bullets and bayonets,
canister and grape ... the way to deal with a mob
[is] to exterminate it.
New York created the first fortress-style armories.
The ones I knew were built around 1904. These were
literally castle keeps for the militia. A typical
armory had a huge indoor drill field, stacks of
guns and ammo, lush veterans' meeting rooms, slits
to shoot through, a great thrusting watch tower,
and balconies from which to pour boiling oil on
The old armories were the oddest symbols of
conscious paranoia. Turn-of-the-century architects
announced that a building should proclaim its
purpose. A church should be welcoming, a jail
should be oppressive. And, of course, an armory
should be, and I quote, "strongly suggestive of a
But those buildings were better symbols than they
were good engineering. They came under attack just
before WW-I. They simply weren't all that
functional. For example, a routine fire in an old
armory, stuffed with incendiary goods, would set it
off like a Roman candle. Besides, we soon saw that
when class warfare did erupt it was more complex
than the work of medieval peasants.
Yesterday I visited our old Houston Armory. It was
built in 1925. Now it's boarded up. The building
isn't as extreme as the older ones, but it still
has stylized castle features.
Now a downtown college plans to renovate it and
make it into their new library. And, as a library,
this old relic will finish its days waging the most
effective possible war to end the kind of class
struggle it was once meant to serve.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds