Today, the secret coins of industrial America. 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.
Manhole covers are the secret cousins of coins,
writes Allan Sekula in
his introduction to Mimi Melnick's book,
Manhole Covers. For two centuries,
American iron works have cast those 300-pound disks
in a dazzling artistic variety -- imprinted with a
different design for every utility company in every
People who worry about gender and language want the
term "manhole cover" changed to "sewer cover." But
that's a grievous misreading of their purpose. The
word manhole was first used for access holes
between the decks of the old, all-male, sailing
ships. It had nothing to do with sewers.
Today, manholes give access to underground gas,
steam, electric, water, and telephone lines -- as
well as to sewers. They cover coal chutes and lead
to cooling chambers for underground transformers.
No doubt, the first manholes in city streets were
for gas lines and sewers, but their history is
None of the first manhole covers have survived. And
the oldest surviving foundry catalog is from in
1860. Nineteenth-century libraries took good care
of even second-rate literature. But first-rate
catalogs of the arts that were shaping America
seemed to lie beyond their purview.
So Melnick shows us the covers themselves --
hundreds of photos. They're festooned with a
delirious gallery of designs -- Gothic tracery,
Tartar shields, mazes -- patterns that swirl in
leaves and spirals. Some have drainage holes; some
are watertight. Some have glass plugs embedded in
the steel to admit light to the cavern below.
For beneath the sunlit city above is a great
criss-crossing warren of supply mains that must be
attended. Any list of the Seven Wonders of the
Modern World would have to include the Chicago
sewer system. It's a far larger achievement than
the Great Pyramid of the ancient world, or the
World Trade Center today. The technical underworld
that supplies our needs is vast.
Last night, walking
my dog, I turned the corner just fifty paces from
my house. There was a manhole cover I'd stepped on
a thousand times before and never seen. Its simple
pattern of concentric circles is bland alongside
other covers. If these were the coins of the new
industrial age, this cover was no more than a
Still, that's not the reason I failed to see it.
What Melnick's lovely book does is to look under
the the cloak of invisibility we throw over the
artisans who make a civilized people of us. It's
our own true coat of arms that's cast in these fine
-- and peaceful -- iron shields.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Melnick, M., Manhole Covers (with photos by
R.A. Melnick), Cambridge, MA: the MIT Press,
Artist Bobbi Mastrangelo makes wonderful use of
manhole covers as art objects at:
I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and
Architecture Librarian, for suggesting the topic
and providing the Melnick source. This episode was
also fed by a protracted discussion of sexist
language on the internet listserv, ExLibris.
ExLibris member Betty Bright pointed out the source
that suggests what turns out to be an inappropriate
alternative: sewer cover. It is: Maggio, R.,
The Dictionary of Bias-Free Usage: A Guide to
Nondiscriminatory Language, Phoenix: Oryx
A painted manhole cover, a water meter access cover,
and a water main cover
-- all within steps of my house.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H.