Saturday, May 14, 2016

On the Grid

On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems That Make Our World Work
© 2010 Scott Huler
256 pages

If modern humans have retained a penchant for magical thinking, little wonder. Our homes accomplish marvels seemingly by the force of will. We want light, we flip a switch.   Thirsty? We turn a knob. Bored? Open a laptop, and hey presto – there’s the complete series of  Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation!  All of civilization is literally at our finger tips, but it’s not magic – it’s a mindboggling array of wires, pipes, routers, and other infrastructure,  put to work by a multitude of engineers.  On the Grid opens the door on the miracle that is the 20th century home. Through it, Huler follows pipes, wires, and garbage men to find out where they go, investigating the operations of water supply, sewage, road construction, traffic control, electricity, waste management, telecommunications, and – for good measure – bus stops and train stations.

The adventure is both social and technical; while  at the beginning he literally stalks a recycling truck and  pokes along in sewers, nearly being run over by a backhoe at one point,  most of his information is gleaned from guided tours by a variety of engineers. Getting inside a nuclear plant, let alone getting a handle on their operation, would be difficult without a guide! By and large the men consulted are enthusiastic about talking about their work, and as Huler learns the ins and outs of more systems, he begins to see commonalities.  Not only do some systems rely on the same infrastructure – power, cable, and telephone all being mounted on a shared utility pole – but the ‘hub and spokes’ model of distribution is commonplace.   This is a wonderfully varied book, in part because of Foley’s respectable ambition. His documentation, however, mixes  science, history, engineering, and a little politics.   He ends with a salute to all of the engineers whose constant vigilance and labor keep the wires buzzing, the pipes open, and the pavement smooth, and a warning to readers not to undervalue infrastructure when it comes to thinking about taxes and leadership.   If, like me, you have a fascinating for knowing how something as complex as a city – or even an ordinary house – operate from day to day, Huler’s sweep offers a beginning spot, and draws on numerous histories  that go into more detail.


* Included in Huler’s bibliography



  1. Sounds like fun. I do like to know where the wires go and am always bothering our engineers and general fixers @ work when I bump into or need them: How does that work, what does that do, where does that go.... [grin] I even understand *some* of the answers!

  2. Same here -- questions for eeevverything. Too bad the author's city was inland, otherwise he might have visited an oil derrick and started asking questions there, too!

    1. Being curious keeps your brain tip-top, keeps you young and might even save your life one day!

    2. And if nothing else, it will get me across the Bridge of Death. Capital of Assyria, capacity of a laden it covered.


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