Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2360:

John Lienhard presents guest Frank Tavares

Today, writer and communications professor, Frandk Tavares, looks at forgotten foundations. 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.

Several months ago I was with a class of seniors at a local industrial park in New Haven, Connecticut. They were part of my business communication simulation class -- taking management roles in a fictitious manufacturing company. We visited the site of their factory, a real building in a real industrial complex with a complicated century and a half history. One of the student challenges is deciding how to enlarge the building -- to determine their options in light of other nearby structures.

The park director had given us site maps and was talking us through changes that'd taken place throughout the area since it was first home to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in the mid-19th century.

She told us how building here was a challenge. The site drawings were incomplete. And those they had weren't accurate. Not so much for what could be seen above the ground, but for what was hidden beneath. She told us that simple construction during the previous decade had often made them unwilling archeologists. They'd found hidden tunnels connecting the buildings -- even an entire boiler room that'd been buried sometime during the previous century. Just the week before our visit, contractors drilling a soil sample for a parking garage, had struck a water main that wasn't on the maps. The resulting geyser reminded them how ignorant they were about all that lay beneath.

Several weeks later, I did an eight day tour of historic sites in Israel. As I continue to process that information overload, I keep coming back to the archeology of a place; how structures and stories can be lost then found then lost again. I stood within thousand year old stone walls that'd been built by the Crusaders and which had only recently been excavated from below a 20th century parking lot. When I examined the massive two-thousand-year-old building blocks of the Temple Mount foundation in old Jerusalem it was from within excavated tunnels -- cut through 20 centuries and as many layers of history.

Over and over I was struck by how civilizations literally bury one another -- sometimes with intentional aggression, sometimes for mere convenience. Either way, it struck me how easily we lose what was once common knowledge and experience. How easily we lose buildings, structures, and remnants of a way of life that once had the illusion of permanent relevance. So many examples where builders become de facto archaeologists -- where they (and we) are surprised by the appearance of forgotten foundations.

Whether it's a 2000-year old King Herod wall, a century old industrial park, or just a badly documented contemporary building project, the permanence of the foundations we lay is often fantasy. Our foundations are so easily forgotten. They become, at best, no more than interesting puzzles for builders of some distant future.

I'm Frank Tavares, at Southern Connecticut State University, where we too are interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Frank Tavares is a Professor of Communication at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. See details here. Tavares is also writer, a consultant in public broadcasting and media issues, and the familiar voice of National Public Radio's funding credits heard at the end of network news and information programs.

For more on the subsurface otherworld, everywhere below us, see additional Engines episodes: e.g., 228, 664, 849, 850, 855, 994, 1441, 1811, and 2154.

Caesarea ruins
Roman ruins excavated in Israel at Caesarea. (Photo by F. Tavares)

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H. Lienhard.