Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 436:
TO KILL A CITY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 436.

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 London Blitz.

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 of all.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


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 Episode 1731.



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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