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article number 338
article date 04-29-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Problems of City Crowdedness Invites Invention, Mid to Late 1800’s
by Roger Burlingame

From the 1940 book, Engines of Democracy.

§ 1

THE BEST civilization is not static. It is a balance of conflicting forces and it is always, if imperceptibly, in motion. It is like a modern steel bridge of the suspension variety, every smallest part of which is continually moving, motivated by opposing forces.

Thus, as we have said, the ancient individualist desire in America which was enhanced in the backwoods is a stern opponent of the collective forces, and the soundness of American society will depend, not upon any static accepted forms but upon this conflict.

When the conflict stops, we shall fall into the errors of the totalitarian states of Europe. When the conflict stops, so will the United States.

From time before record men seem to have bunched together; from fear, from a sense of strength in combination, from common hunger or need, from the desire to release a suffocating accumulation of ideas (though this is a late development), from countless other causes. It is a biological essential, for instance, that a man should come into reasonable proximity with a woman and an essential to survival that the resultant children should remain, for a period, close to their mother if not their father.

So the family is the simplest gregarious form and given two families in limited surroundings (limited especially from the subsistence standpoint), it is unavoidable that they should either unite or conflict. Families presently become large and the tribe becomes, also, a natural form.

We may multiply this up to the point where people are bunched or kept together by an outside force: a ruler, a dictator, a political plan or the application of some mechanism; at this point the form may become unnatural and it is from such a condition that many of the “solitaries” like Rousseau have sprung in a kind of back-somersault.

We are concerned here, not with the essential form of the city in civilization or with the history of its development through the ages. This history has been beautifully written. Our interest must be only in the American city which, of course, reproduced to some extent world development: how invention affected it and it invention, how it was at once a result and an instrument of consolidation, of the collective epoch in which so much invention arrived and how, finally, it may have become, through the application of technical and other forces, an unnatural form for the future.

Congestion began with the factory. It was extremely unwelcome to Americans. They accepted it only when the irresistible forces of invention compelled them and even then they unloaded the worst of its burdens on the shoulders of immense masses of Europeans imported for the purpose.

Whatever the compulsions of the artisan age or commercial activity, nothing ever approached the physical cohesion forced by the factory system. In Europe, congestion occurred under the guild program though other factors such as feudal land-holding, political manipulation and so on were also at work.

In America, artisans lived where they pleased and worked at home. Work was brought them or they sought it but outside of their separate homes there was no focus. Always, they cultivated a bit of ground. They came and went when and where they pleased. They scheduled their own hours of labor and leisure.


Commerce was more exacting but it was usually more dispersed. Large bodies of men were not forced to labor in concert in one place unless that place be a ship which was transient.

Shopkeeping was an individualist matter, its routine was dictated by the acquisitiveness of the owner. The merchant office was often seasonal in its activity or dependent on the coming and going of ships. Even in the more exigent commerce of later times, there was variety and transiency, space and movement, diversion and amusement.

The factory, however, was focal and inexorable. The clock and the machine were its tyrants and stood between the boss and the worker. A force which was no longer personal or human drew people tightly together at a set moment and held them together.

A rigid discipline enforced concerted motion and hence physical contact during a dozen working hours. That the habit of this contact should project itself into the hours of leisure was inevitable. But beyond all question of social habit, the centralizing force of the factory compelled congestion.

No one who must report at five or six in the morning at a given point whence he would not be released until dark could have his home far from that point. As industrial plants increased their laboring force by adding foreigners, the surrounding area accessible to the workers became more and more crowded.

There came a stage, however, beyond which human beings could no longer adapt themselves. Even low-standard Europeans were not wholly immune to communicable diseases, to bacteria in polluted water or to pulmonary deterioration in the absence of air. It became necessary, therefore, to invent some means of preserving health within the congestion.

Immediately new technological demands were postulated. One was the protection of water, another was transport. From these came the devices for piping, pumping, reservoir-holding, sewerage and sewage disposal, plumbing, paving, the omnibus and the tramway. These were the fundamental urban inventions.

Further refinements brought the whole technology of fire protection and prevention, the technico-social inventions of police protection, street cleaning, hospitals and parks and the social inventions of government, education, clubs, amusements and churches.

All these things came to pass in all cities and they are familiar to us as essentials of urban life; the industrial city has been chosen as a take-off into their discussion because in its case the need was so extreme.

First of all comes water, as essential to life as air and usually less accessible under the artificial restrictions which man has placed upon his fellows.


§ 2

When the industrial city crowded round the factory, the individual well for each family or house unit was no longer adequate. The wells must be larger and each must supply several houses. But as excreta entered the ground as rapidly as the water came out of it, it was unavoidable that the water should become polluted.

So the necessity arrived for removing the water supply from the neighborhood of the houses and this process brought a whole new technology with it which involved artesian drilling or reservoir construction; aqueducts or piping, protection and perhaps filtration. This arrived soon in the extreme case of the town not situated on a lake or river.

But even most towns on the lakes or rivers eventually made use of such technology. While a lake or river normally offers an endless water supply, it also offers a repository for waste. The early river factories did not hesitate to dump their waste into the rivers. Thus a town might avoid pollution by drawing its drinking water from a point above that at which its factory disgorged but what about the town farther downstream?

Factory pollution soon became a source of inconvenience, disease and death particularly when inorganic chemical poisons entered the lakes or streams.

In a lake or river town, human waste buried in the ground does not as quickly pollute the water supply as it does if that supply comes from wells, but a river invited a sewer system as soon as ideas of sanitation began to enter the American consciousness and anything which “carried away” obnoxious waste seemed desirable regardless of where it carried it.

Our industrial towns, therefore, suffered much in their early growth from a failure to understand sources of pure water and sources of pollution. Many of them still suffer though filtration, purification and treatment of waste are now understood, because of the expense of these things and the failure of municipal governments to meet it squarely.

A. Pittsburgh and Allegheny from Coal Hill, 1849. From a lithograph by C. Warren Smith and Co.
B. View of West Corington, Ohio, 1830. From C. T. Greve’s Centennial History of Cincinnati.
(left) View of Burlington, Iowa. (right) View of Quincy, Illinois. From drawings by H. Lewis’s Early 80’s.

The towns which drew their drinking water from lakes and rivers were worse off than those which could find a virgin supply in the hinterland. Such a supply necessitated elevation and aqueducts. Ancient Rome, condemning its muddy Tiber for domestic purposes, emulated the Phoenicians and the Greeks in large engineering enterprises and drew its virgin water from remote hills.

In a pre-iron age, this work implied a quantity of cheap labor. The great masonry aqueduct structures which so impressively bridged the valleys were not, as was once supposed, the result of ignorance of hydraulics but rather of material necessity as pipes could be made only of lead or bronze.

In America where wood was used for everything, the first water conduits were made from the bored trunks of trees. Recent excavations in New York have unearthed pieces of such conduits in a surprising state of preservation. New York, having a favorable hinterland but no river supply, began its search for virgin water as early as 1832.*

* The Hudson is tidal. The so-called East River is, in fact, a strait.

Wooden water pipes uncovered when the subway was constructed under Fulton Street, Manhattan. Courtesy of Board of Transportation, City of New York.

The industrial towns along the Sound in Connecticut which had similar happy situations were establishing reservoirs in the hills by the mid-century and, in that individualist age, placed the hydraulic work in the hands of private enterprises where much of it still is. The blanket charter of the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company which is, at the moment, astonishing so many students of the law of eminent domain, was issued in 1857 and testifies to the abundance of empty hinterland at the period.

The virgin reservoir method was greatly accelerated by the cheap manufacture of iron. With plenty of metal for mains and sewers, the situation of towns on or near the coast with hills behind them presently became ideal as far as water supply and waste disposal were concerned. Unhappily, the majority of in industrial towns in America were not so situated.

The classic example of a city hounded all its life by water difficulties is Chicago, lying in a vast plain but at the edge of one of the largest fresh-water lakes in the world and upon a river inlet to that lake. Early in the quick growth of the city, the individual wells became polluted. Water was then hauled from the lake in barrels and sold to the inhabitants.

This outrageous enterprise was partially replaced in 1834 by a protected public well and then, as pipes came into use, by pumping from the lake 500 feet from the shore. In 1854 a waterworks stored the pumped lake water in two reservoirs.

By this time, however, the lake water near the shore was so polluted that the death rate in the city had climbed to the astonishing figure of 53.9 per 1000. In the following year a newer sewerage system aggravated the pollution and it became necessary to extend the conduits of the water supply farther and farther into the lake.

This game was won by the pollution which storms carried a great distance from shore. Eventually, then, the problem had to be met by draining into the river and reversing the direction of its flow, a colossal engineering undertaking which ended by dumping all of Chicago’s sewage into the Mississippi to the great alarm of the downstream communities on that river. There, with the addition of new methods of water purification and treatment of waste, the matter rests.

The plan showing water works, Chicago. It still is being used.

Proper sewerage requires a large volume of water to dissolve and carry the solid constituents of sewage. With cheap manufacture of metals, notably iron, this was supplied via the great American institution of plumbing, which was of strictly urban origin.

In Europe, plumbing had become a familiar institution long before most Americans had seen a water pipe. According to Mumford, the water closet was invented in England in 1596 by Sir John Harrington and improved by Joseph Bramah in 1778. The piped sink was long in use in Europe and the piped bath had been used on and off since Roman times whereas it was virtually unknown in the United States until the mid-nineteenth century.

None of these things became usual in America until the seventies and eighties. They remained luxuries until mass manufacture in the twentieth century made them universal and the compact, efficient, sanitary bathroom became an American symbol.

We are interested in them here only as they affect water supply in the city. They assisted sewerage and answered the problem of carrying liquid waste “somewhere else” but they also brought enormously increased consumption of water and caused remote pollution. In the future, while bathing is not likely to decline, some more efficient method of disposal will have to replace the present extravagant system which uses billions of gallons of pure water in one place to carry pollution to similar billions in another.

Such abuses were felt only when the number of cities increased and a kind of interdependence developed among them. At first we see one man objecting because his neighbor pollutes his well. Then one section of a city rises against another section for the same reason.

Finally a whole city protests at the act of another city so that a community as far, for instance, from Chicago as St. Louis will be up in arms against this remote neighbor because of water pollution. In the same way, New York has enemies on hundreds of miles of coast line where bathing beaches have been affected by the city’s offal.

These are all significant indices of a collective result.

An early attempt at sanitary house drainage. A and B, sectional views of a typical drain-trap. The effectiveness of this system depends upon the basin in the trap staying filled with water (A) so as to block the gases from escaping as they do when the water has evaporated (B). Redrawn from the book: Sewer Gas and How to Keep It Out of Houses by Osborne Reynolds. Macmillan, London, 1872.

§ 3

As congestion reached the bursting point, it was necessary for a city to increase its area. This introduced the problem of transit. While transit was still by wheeled vehicles drawn by horses through the streets, there arrived the earlier problem of paving. Here again if we must seek remote origins we must go back to the Romans whose roads of a stone foundation, two layers of differently graded concrete and smooth stone pavements, survive today in France and Italy.

In America, cobblestones were the earliest form of paving and they seem to have existed in Boston and New York in the seventeenth century. Franklin, in the eighteenth, introduced this kind of paving more extensively in Philadelphia. It was borrowed from Europe.

So, too, was the wood block, never as effectively used in the United States as in France and England because American wood blocks were usually round instead of rectangular or octagonal, the spaces between them being filled with gravel and other binding material.

McAdam, the Scotch inventor, devised a road made entirely of crushed stone without binding, on the theory that the traffic would complete the road by forcing the irregularly cut stones into a tight mosaic. The “macadamized” road became popular in America even as the pavement of small towns, though it suffered modifications of the original design.

One was due to the fact that while the road material when cut by hand formed a satisfactory mosaic without binding material, as soon as it was turned out by machine, the stones became so regular in shape that a binding of sand, sand and cement, tar or other material became necessary.


The macadam and wood-block streets were overlapped and finally generally replaced by what was called asphalt. In this the asphaltum which was, in fact, bitumen existing in large natural deposits, performed much the same function that cement performs in concrete.

The pavement was made by mixing the hot asphaltum with sand or gravel depending on the surface desired This was rolled with a heavy steam roller. Asphalt still predominates as street pavement in America. It requires a minimum sub-structure and is easy to repair or cut.

The first local transit was provided by wheeled vehicles dignified beyond their due by the Latin word meaning “for all.” In some American cities, notably New York whose shape made the transit problem acute from the start, the omnibus gave abundant opportunity for cut-throat individualism in business and thus its doom was soon sealed.

Historians of the mid-century tell of the mad competition of the various omnibus companies so that drivers “recklessly drove over men, women and children in their haste to beat their nearest competitors to waiting passengers. Municipal governments, always behind the facts, were slow in coming to the “regimentation” of a franchise. This had to be pointed out to them by means of a track.

On a single track running through a street, a free-for-all would be impossible and even if the street should be filled from gutter to gutter with tracks, competition would be limited. And as a track-filled street would cause considerable inconvenience to other traffic, the minds of aldermen and councilmen and other city fathers, which bore some resemblance to the single track in question, finally became adjusted to the franchise idea.

It was regarded, of course, by the rugged individuals of the period as dictatorship, socialism, the scrapping of personal liberty and the subversion of constitutional rights, but the battered public welcomed it and, under franchises wrought with the usual accompaniment of graft and spoils, the street-car came in.

Steam was manifestly not economical for short hauls so the cars were horse-drawn. The “horse-car” was invented by John Stephenson, an Irish-American living in New York, a carriage mechanic of great ingenuity. His car was operated on the first street-car line in the world on Manhattan Island in 1832. In New York, street-cars and buses overlapped each other for some thirty years.


The street-car introduced a technic which the railroad had not provided. It demanded a rail which should be flush with the Street and over which vehicular traffic might move. A rail invented by the French engineer, Loubat, and improved by George Francis Train, the eccentric American Fenian who took the street railway to England, and others, came into use in New York in 1852.

Stephenson, who presently became a successful horse-car builder supplying the transit companies of many cities, also introduced certain designs in springs and brakes which carried on into later motorized street-cars.

The sharp topography of San Francisco was responsible for the next step in urban transit. The grades of the streets which still astonish new visitors to this city presented a special problem. It was solved by Andrew Smith Hallidie, an engineer of Scottish extraction, by the cable car.

An endless cable moving underground in a conduit furnished the motive power. A device for grappling this cable was suspended from the car and passed through a slot midway between the rails. The slot and the conduit were later used in the second step of the development of the electric car.

The cable car was expensive but it became popular, nevertheless, even in cities which did not present the extreme need of San Francisco. It was the first answer which urban transit technology gave to the growing demand for speed.

The peculiar social needs of Manhattan have always pressed transit engineers to their full capacity. They have never caught up with the demand; it is unlikely that they ever will, for reasons which will presently appear.

As the city began to grow it was evident not only that every longitudinal thoroughfare would be necessary for transportation but that the spaces above and below the street must also be used. Hence came the peculiar monstrosity of the elevated railway and the more reasonable and convenient device of the subway, borrowed from London.

The “L” is important only in that it introduced steam transportation for a brief interval into the city. For long distances in New York and later in Boston and Chicago it was economically possible. It is interesting in its demonstration of the advancing technics of iron and steel construction. Its greatest usefulness came, of course, with electrification.

It is not commonly remembered that the first serious American proposal for underground transit came in New York as early as 1864. In that year Hugh B. Willson, an avid student of London’s suffocating “Underground” opened the year before, promoted a company with a capital of $5,000,000 for a New York subway. The bill for the franchise, however, which must come before the state legislature was defeated in Albany, presumably under the influence of street-transit lobbies.

Its defeat stirred New Yorkers to a rage reflected on their “Times” editorial page. “We wonder,” wrote the editor, “how much longer the people of our city will permit themselves to be thus plundered by men who are ostensibly their servants and dependents.” The residents of Manhattan continued to wonder in this direction for many years.

It was 1901 before subway construction was actually begun, six years after Boston, happier perhaps, in her legislative control, had taken the lead. Meanwhile the technology of electrical transit reached the practical stage.

The problem of how to present the later history of invention in America becomes acute at this point. Electric motive power is, of course, the product of the electric motor but in transportation it must also await the development of the dynamo.


Thomas Davenport emerging surprisingly from Brandon, Vermont, had been inspired by Joseph Henry to the point of producing an electric motor as far back as 1837. A decade later, a car was made to run by electricity, but Moses Farmer who designed it depended on a battery for his energy.

It was soon evident that this dependence was misplaced and so the electric car like the electric locomotive must wait for the efficient generation of electric power by mechanical means. So, too, the full presentation of the history must also wait for our study of this kind of power through its collateral development via the dynamo.

Meanwhile we must be content with the bare statement that city transit was revolutionized by the third rail of Stephen Field in 1874, the trolley of the Belgian immigrant, Van Depoele, early in the eighties and the “wheelbarrow suspension” and multiple-unit control of the inventive hero Frank Julian Sprague in the same decade.

Except in subways and on elevated railroads—antiquities in themselves—we look today upon the surviving relics of this revolution in urban transit as collectors’ items. In certain medieval communities, the trolley car still alarms the passing motorist and more frequently abandoned tracks will throw him into a skid, but the era is dead and we forget the effect of this revolution which came to the end of its physical career in less than a single human lifetime.

Its results in urban civilization were immense. It extended the city and grouped the residents along its tracks; it centralized the foci of industry and business at its terminals. Many of our cities to this day are monuments to the trolley car: the dispersive automobile has not yet broken the somewhat unhappy pattern it drew.

In the cities which adapted their growth to the trolley car, there is over-centralization with accompanying fictional property values and traffic congestion.

In the business districts of cities, the centralization about the transit terminals made necessary the amazing phenomenon of vertical congestion. In an automobile age, the skyscraper would very likely never have arisen.

§ 4

The skyscraper made possible by the cheapening of structural steel by the open-hearth process was an invention answering the extreme need of centralization on Manhattan Island. Architecturally it was a triumph and it provided a violent impetus for invention; its social effect was disastrous.

Manhattan was ideal for the skyscraper. The island is almost solid rock. At the outset of true skyscraper construction on a large scale, this was the only reliable foundation. The difficulties of excavation had already been met by railroad engineers with the rock-drill and the explosives of Alfred Nobel.

The building is succinctly described by Mumford as “the iron cage and the curtain wall. This,” he goes on to say, “translated into colossal paleotechnic forms the vernacular frame and clapboard construction of the old American farmhouse. The outer wall became a mere boundary of the interior space . . . ; instead of the building’s being a shell, it became essentially a skeleton—a skeleton . . . with a tough external skin.”

New Yorkers who watched these earliest buildings as they rose so fast to the tune of the riveters will remember with what astonishment they saw pieces of this “external skin” clinging here and there to the vermilion-primed skeletons apparently without special design with nothing below them for support.

The first building to use this method was not, however, in New York. The Home Insurance Building, begun on this plan in Chicago in 1884, has been called “the father of the skyscraper” because of its construction method, though fire-resistance rather than great height was its motive.

Its architect was the distinguished Civil War veteran, Major William LeBaron Jenney. The columns for this building were of cast iron and it used also beams of Bessemer steel as this was before American steel manufacturers had proved the superiority of open-hearth steel for building purposes.

The New York Life Insurance Building in Chicago, showing method of constructing the outer walls. From a drawing by Ernest Peixott,, 1893.

New York’s Flatiron Building, designed by Daniel Hudson Burnham on the small triangle of land bounded by Broadway, Fifth Avenue and Twenty-second Street, was regarded as one of the wonders of the world in 1902. With it, “cage” construction in steel came into its own. It set the pace for skyscrapers from that day on.

The skyscraper presupposed other inventions. One was the passenger elevator invented in 1852 by Elisha Gray Otis and improved by his son Charles but adapted to the true skyscraper when it was electrified by Frank Julian Sprague in 1892.

A sine qua non of the skyscraper was the telephone, which we are about to meet. The skyscraper soon developed new kinds of heating, plumbing, wiring, tiling, plastering, wall and floor compositions, ventilation and lighting. Like the buildings themselves, these things must follow rigid formulas, they must be mass-produced and interchangeable.

The skyscraper can be switched quickly from an office building to an apartment house, to a hotel. The cage form has been used for all these purposes so that it is no longer architecture but engineering and it is now proper to speak of the engineer rather than the architect of a building.

With it the ancient idea of adapting, by means of art, a structure to a specific use has disappeared. The skyscraper is perhaps the most adequate symbol we have of the age of mass production, machine production, interchangeability and the collective fact.

Socially, its effects have been almost unmitigatedly distressing. Whatever inherent beauty it may have as a shaft or tower is nullified by its environment: its lack of approach, its baselessness, its dimensional disproportion—for any building must include in its dimensions the space about it.

It has created puzzles of traffic and transit which are insoluble unless, indeed, a city can be planned for its skyscrapers in which case the purpose of the building is defeated for it exists only as a means of close concentration of large populations in a small area.

It has caused unreckoned hurt to the minds of those who must occupy it and the frantic effort it inspires to get as far from it as possible during the leisure spaces has sapped their energy and wasted their time.


§ 5

The city of New York is a financial fiction. Beginning as a trading post, that is still its main function. For years before the Dutch settled the island of Manhattan, it was used as a convenient rendezvous, a point at which the native producer met the European middleman and from which both departed as soon as the deal was consummated.

After Peter Minuit bought it from the Indians for a price which became famous when translated into twenty-four dollars, it was owned to the end of the Dutch occupation by a commercial company and its inhabitants were regarded as company employees. Before the end of the seventeenth century it had become thoroughly cosmopolitan and polyglot to the point of some eighteen or twenty languages and these immigrants had introduced mercantile practices from many parts of the world.

In the eighteenth century, the city became the greatest haunt of pirates, privateers and commercial jugglers in the whole of the thirteen colonies—the refuge of men like Coats, Fletcher, Tew and Kidd and the headquarters for the barter of prizes captured at sea.

In the Revolution, it was the center of the treasonable activity against the Continental Army and much of the treason was dictated by profit motives.

There was, to be sure, an interval during which the island presented a pleasing aspect with many quiet homes and farms and a kind of integrity which appeared to be divorced from wholly commercial dealings but this was already doomed at the turn of the century when the subdivision and sale of loyalist properties had begun the land fiction.

In 1808, the city was “planned.” The only guide of the planners was the profit motive; they designed then the deadly gridiron which subdivided existing properties into small rectangles subject to endless speculative stimulus.

From that point on, land values had no reality. The buyer thought of his plot not as beautiful or convenient or fertile in itself but in terms of its mythical future value to another supposititious buyer. The land was merely a “security” whose value was subject to daily alteration as the city grew.

The result was that the city was never built but only “planned.” There was no sense of permanence about any structure. One by one the houses disappeared, prices of property moved beyond the reach of individuals and shelter was rented by the cubic foot.


The extremity to which the New York romance was carried was, of course, made possible by its geography. A long narrow island cut off on its sides by stretches of water traversible only in boats, it could grow in only one direction. As an important natural seaport it must grow.

When, with the completion of the Erie Canal, it became the main gateway to inland America, its growth was accelerated. At this point the Hudson and the so called East River played effectively into the hands of the land of speculators.

The only possible answers must come through technology. The first answer was the suspension bridge to Brooklyn, a triumph of engineering but soon inadequate. The need was for close-packing about the center of financial activity. The next answer, the vertical movement, again played into the hands of the financiers.

The value of a square foot of land must now be multiplied by the number of vertical feet of steel which might be based upon it. There was a wide range of guesses and as the towers grew like weeds, the whole center of the metropolis became a fable. Suddenly New Yorkers became Lilliputians crawling between the feet of vast, indifferent, steel Gullivers. Is it odd that they became blind worshippers of the machine?

In their extremity only the machine could save them. Even it could not save them from the fiction; it could only palliate the cruel facts which were the by-product.

The machine burrowed for them under the rivers, threw bridge after bridge across to new land, multiplied the trains, electrified them, piped water for the composite Gulliver for hundreds of miles, lighted him, ventilated him, drained him and made it possible for millions of human maggots to infest him. Thus, with the aid of the machine, man was able to survive, at terrific cost, the ultimate nightmare conjuring of his brain.

This survival is often regarded as beautiful—from the harbor. Its beauty is less evident as we investigate certain residues of the effort. New York, as the gateway, sucked in the mass of nineteenth-century immigration. A quantity of poor folk from Europe stimulated by the more golden chapters of the fairy story got to the gate and could get no farther.

Forming a sort of scum round the edges of the magic island, these resident particles rapidly reduced the pleasant fiction to a grim reality. The landowners along these edges found themselves forced to provide for the particles at rates out of all proportion to the story-book value of the land.


Just short of the edge spaces, the march of the Gullivers had halted. To get, therefore, some approach to proper fictitious values, the only way was to crowd the human particles into the smallest possible space and to spend the minimum of money on the improvement of their shelters.

Here, then, even the machine was balked. To go into the detail of the resultant disease, crime and anti-social behavior in these districts would hardly be the province of a history of invention.

In the 1920’s, the story-tellers made a beginning of getting around the difficulty by stimulating a demand for river-frontage among the wealthier citizens of Manhattan. In that golden era, it will be remembered, arrived also that triumph of the dreamers known as the “co-operative ownership” of apartments.

New York, nevertheless, has provided something without which the nation could hardly exist. Under our economic system the ready flow of capital demands precisely such a fictional center. As a clearing house for the symbols of wealth—the chips in the game—it is essential.

It was an instrument in creating our empire of the first half of the eighteenth century and it was fundamental in the creation of the nation which followed that empire. It was the necessary center for the operation of such semi-tangibles as credit. In it was evolved the necessary fiction of our currency.

Just as we use the fictional device of algebra to arrive at numerical solutions, so, in a sense, we use New York as a means of determining values. The simple equation x - y = z may be resolved by assigning values to two of the symbols. If, for instance, we let New York assign the value to x, and if z is a reality unobscured by New York, y is determinable.

As a container and distributor of money, New York has drawn to it the arts and sciences. As a convenient gateway it has drawn, too, much of the culture of older Europe. As a center of the nation’s lines of communication it has been able to distribute these things throughout the nation especially as technology has come so abundantly to its aid.

As a stimulus to technology, it is perhaps unequalled in the world, not merely because it is a financial center but because, in itself, it has postulated such difficult technological problems.

Its future is as indeterminate as tonight’s dream. With the dispersive trend which, occasionally, we may scent in the modern air, it may lose its usefulness. It would make, as some one has suggested, a beautiful ruin.

A typical city profile showing the wasteful effort of copying Manhattan. Our Cities, Their Role in the National Economy.

§ 6

Unfortunately, New York, as a fable, has been used as a pattern by many cities which were not forced to such a scheme by their own physical problems. A useful government report has presented the common plan (or lack of plan) in profile form.

“This vertical, cross sectional view makes the intense development at the center seem even more grotesque and reveals how really precipitous is the drop from the towering peaks of the skyscrapers, which mark business center, to the encircling belt of much lower, often obsolescent and decaying buildings. . .

. . . . Apparently in the small city a single skyscraper can, so to speak, suck up all or most of the demand for office space and create a vacuum of blight all around. The more imposing the skyscrapers at the center, the wider is the area over which they exert a blighting and depressing influence. This is reflected in actual physical deterioration, in accelerated obsolescence, vacant building sites, and in decaying commercial areas and residential slums.”

These troubles, however, are beginning to be understood. City planning is, today, a recognized profession and there is much intensive activity in this direction. Though progress may be slow in the face of financial opposition it is probably steady, and the next quarter century will certainly see improvement in housing, slum clearance, parks and traffic congestion, even if the bugbear of government regulation must enter the picture.

Again, in our history, we shall be faced with a choice of freedoms and, under intolerable conditions, we may choose the freedom of health, fresh air and space even at the sacrifice of the individual’s freedom to amass so-called wealth at the public expense.

Our descendants, having a clear view of our collective progress via the machine which we created, will probably be surprised at our calling this choice Socialism.


The technologies which remain in this urban phase are those of fire and police protection, lighting and intra-urban communication. The development of the fire engine and of scientific fire-fighting and prevention makes an interesting and complex study.

Limited in a selection of the technologies which have most affected society we must sacrifice many of lesser effect. The action of fire-fighting is negative, in a sense, like military defense. It is not a denial of the importance of these things to select for such a record as this the more progressive inventions.

The effort at fire prevention is more decisive than the efforts of engines or ladders. In this, steel construction and the use of fireproof compositions have been the greatest technical contributions. The whole question of lighting must wait on the dynamo, the arc, and the incandescent bulb.

That leaves communication: far too large a subject to be included with other matters in an urban chapter. The telephone is the genius of the American city. An attempt to picture a skyscraper without it would result in a nightmare greater than any that monstrosity has yet produced, but the dream would break down in laughter.

The record of the progress of the telephone, from the first faint whisper in the ear of a man whose life was dedicated to the comfort of deafness to the world network of voice communication today, is probably the most stirring story in the whole history of invention in the world.

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