Today, we view a new land from above. 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.
You and I find little
novelty in looking down on a city from an airplane.
But as late as the 1930s few people had yet flown.
Most of us still dreamt of rising into the air to
gaze down on the city around us. In fact, the dream
was much older than flight. Artists have been
trying to take us into the sky since the late
The new medium of printed books soon tried to
include imagined aerial views of cities.
Perspective was badly understood, and those early
block prints were pretty surealistic.
Then, when Leonardo da Vinci took up perspective,
the first thing he did was to sketch fine aerial
views of imaginary buildings. So we've been trying
to create aerial views of our cities for at least
Bird's eye views really took off just after the
first French balloons. But, oddly enough, it wasn't
because of flight. Rather, it was the invention of
lithography -- printing done with stone slabs.
Lithography was cheap and effective, and it soon
suited itself to making color plates as well.
Lithography whipped up a new hunger for pictures. I
suppose it also drove the invention of photography,
but that's another story. Lithography was in place
by 1825. The next 75 years gave us two to three
thousand aerial views of American cities. Of course
those views were all drawn down on the ground.
The American West really took to the new medium.
Itinerant artists went from town to town making
bird's eye views. They were immensely popular with
settlers who'd just built a new town.
I count only 46 buildings in an 1840 lithograph of
"Austin the New Capital of Texas" -- even fewer in
Monterey, California, two years later. But the few
buildings of Monterey are joined by a rich record
of the variety of ships and boats in the harbor.
As we follow bird's eye views down through the 19th
century, the towns grow. The bird has to fly
higher, and the magic of what he sees fades. The
bird's eye view works best when the town is small
enough to let you pick out buildings -- your house,
my house, the mayor's house.
These old drawings leave a stunning, and usually
accurate, record of that sort of detail. The old
cities of Helena, Oregon City, and San Francisco
live, very much as they once did, in these old
prints. And they hold some surprises -- like
smokestacks and factories on the "Streets of
Laredo" in 1892.
So we built cities and immediately dramatized what
we'd done. And it's peculiarly appropriate that we
assumed a bird's wings of freedom to tell about the
new America we were creating.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds