Today, let's talk about bricks. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The Third Little Pig built
his house of brick, and the Big Bad Wolf didn't get
very far trying to blow it down. Like the Second
Little Pig, most of us build our houses of wood.
It's cheaper. Today's market is filled with houses
that've been made to look like they're brick but
which are primarily wood.
Yet brick strikes us as a pedestrian material, and
it really is a common denominator that goes back
10,000 years. The first bricks were sun-dried
clays, often reinforced with grasses. The Book of
Exodus tells how Pharaoh ordered straw withheld
from the Hebrew people to keep them from making
bricks. Perhaps, along the way, wooden houses with
brick fireplaces burned down leaving the brick much
stronger. After 2500 BC people caught on, and fired
bricks began replacing adobe in India and the
By the 2nd century AD, brick-making was so woven
into the fabric of Roman life that Plutarch warned,
"No man ever wetted clay and then left it, as if
there would be bricks by chance and fortune."
Bricks were used in England during centuries of
Roman occupation. But when the Romans left, the art
died out. The Saxons, who didn't know how to make
brick, reused old Roman bricks.
After Rome, brick-making survived only in Italy.
Central Europe rediscovered the art about the time
of Charlemagne. England didn't relearn it until the
12th century. Then she made high art of brickwork.
The old Roman bricks had been thin and broad, like
large tiles. The English gave bricks their modern
shape and set about to copy the complex forms once
made of cut stone -- twisted chimneys, spiral
staircases, stately mansions.
Here in America we used our huge supplies of virgin
wood to imitate the columns and lintels of European
stonework. But we still needed brick for ovens and
chimneys. Even our first settlements, Roanoke and
Jamestown, had crude brick kilns. English ships
used bricks for ballast and hauled them across the
ocean. The earliest bricks we've found in the
Pacific Northwest were hauled halfway around the
world to Vancouver Island in the 18th century.
How do we know an old brick was made in England,
not America? I suppose one might use methods of
forensic geology to find out, but this is easier.
Brick clay is first cast in boxes and, for
centuries, brick-makers have cast their marks into
Shakespeare talked about brick in Henry
VI. A commoner claims his father, a
bricklayer, is the true king, switched at birth. In
support, his friend cries, "He made a chimney in my
father's house, and the bricks are alive at this
day to testify to it." They give their claim
credence by calling up the brick chimney which
endures beyond the house itself. Brick still means
solidity -- even today. What better can we say of a
friend than, "He is a brick."
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Gurke, K., Bricks and Brickmaking: A Handbook
for Historical Archaeology. Moscow, ID: The
University of Idaho Press, 1987.
Brunskill, R., Clifton-Taylor, A., English
Brickwork. London: Ward Lock Limited, 1977.
I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and
Architecture Library, for suggesting the topic and
providing the two source books; to Lynn Eichhorn,
Virginia Polytechnic Institute, for considerable
counsel on the use of brick in architecture; and to
Dennis Houston, Rice University English Department,
for advice on the sense of the Shakespeare
Appleton's Cyclopedia of Applied
A Ninteenth-Century Brickmaking Machine
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Stereopticon image courtesy of
And this is early 20th century brick-making in
Egypt -- a thousands of years old technology
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