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No. 1731:
To Kill a City

Today, we try to kill a city. 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, and we need to ask why.

Historian J. W. Konvitz tells how, ever since we've had airplanes, analysts have been telling generals that their bombs could destroy cities. A 1931 expert flatly said that cites were too fragile to weather aerial assaults -- they were too dependent on transportation and supply systems, on electricity and plumbing. A 1938 British 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 as newborn babes ....

Of course London proved far tougher than that. During the Blitz, parts of it kept functioning without any essential utilities and with half the housing gone. It seemed to defy all reason.

And yet, thirty years ago we dumped thirty million pounds of explosives on Hanoi. That was a terrible pasting, yet production there increased while it was going on.

The experts, it seems, had looked at cities and seen large machines. And, in that, they made the same error that people too easily make when they look at any machine. They saw only the gears. They didn't see the human heart at its center.

Early in WW-II, British and American airmen argued over how to bomb cities. The British favored pattern-bombing. They meant to kill cities by panicking their populations. They never expected to run into courage like they themselves had shown during the London Blitz.

The Americans made a more subtle error. We too equated cities with machines, and we decided we had only to put a wrench in the gears. We'd use precision bombing to cut rail lines and destroy factories.

Well, a city is a machine, indeed; 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. They are a part of ourselves. And our cities -- well, walk the sidewalks of lower Manhattan. Smell the foods, hear the sounds, talk with passers-by. Nothing will tell you as surely that a city is the most wonderfully robust machine 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 is a substantially revised version of Episode 436.

Image and caption from the 1909 McClure's Magazine

Image and caption from the 1909 McClure's Magazine