Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 822:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 822.

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 centers.

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 rioters.

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 fortress."

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 work.

(Theme music)

Fogelson, R.M., America's Armories: Architecture, Society, and Public Order. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Armory building across the street from the Massachussets
Inst. of Technology in Cambridge. This old castle, with
its Gothic battlements, now serves as a warehouse.

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

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