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No. 834:
Bird's Eye Views

Today, we view a new land from above. 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.

You and I find little novelty in looking down on a city from an airplane. But as late as the 1930s few people had yet flown. Most of us still dreamt of rising into the air to gaze down on the city around us. In fact, the dream was much older than flight. Artists have been trying to take us into the sky since the late 1400s.

The new medium of printed books soon tried to include imagined aerial views of cities. Perspective was badly understood, and those early block prints were pretty surealistic.

Then, when Leonardo da Vinci took up perspective, the first thing he did was to sketch fine aerial views of imaginary buildings. So we've been trying to create aerial views of our cities for at least 500 years.

Bird's eye views really took off just after the first French balloons. But, oddly enough, it wasn't because of flight. Rather, it was the invention of lithography -- printing done with stone slabs. Lithography was cheap and effective, and it soon suited itself to making color plates as well.

Lithography whipped up a new hunger for pictures. I suppose it also drove the invention of photography, but that's another story. Lithography was in place by 1825. The next 75 years gave us two to three thousand aerial views of American cities. Of course those views were all drawn down on the ground.

The American West really took to the new medium. Itinerant artists went from town to town making bird's eye views. They were immensely popular with settlers who'd just built a new town.

I count only 46 buildings in an 1840 lithograph of "Austin the New Capital of Texas" -- even fewer in Monterey, California, two years later. But the few buildings of Monterey are joined by a rich record of the variety of ships and boats in the harbor.

As we follow bird's eye views down through the 19th century, the towns grow. The bird has to fly higher, and the magic of what he sees fades. The bird's eye view works best when the town is small enough to let you pick out buildings -- your house, my house, the mayor's house.

These old drawings leave a stunning, and usually accurate, record of that sort of detail. The old cities of Helena, Oregon City, and San Francisco live, very much as they once did, in these old prints. And they hold some surprises -- like smokestacks and factories on the "Streets of Laredo" in 1892.

So we built cities and immediately dramatized what we'd done. And it's peculiarly appropriate that we assumed a bird's wings of freedom to tell about the new America we were creating.

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

(Theme music)

Reps, J.W., Cities on Stone: Nineteenth Century Lithograph Images of the Urban West, Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1976. (This is the catalog of a traveling exhibit of bird's eye views mounted by the Amon Carter Museum.)

I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson and Ellen Beasely for urging this subject on me and to Margaret Culbertson for making her copy of the Reps catalog available to me.

For a find collection of Birds Eye views of Texas towns, see: