Thursday, September 14, 2017

Infrastructure: A Field Guide

Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape
© 1999, 2014 Brian Hayes
544 pages

Here at last is a book for those of us who constantly gaze out the car window at the fixtures on utility poles, or drums mounted in the sky above the telephone building, and wonder: what are those and what do they do?  Chris Hayes offers in his introduction that there are many books for understanding the various kinds of trees and birds we see around us; his hope is to help readers understand the built environment which can be beautiful in own right. Hayes'  field guide is not a dry catalog of pipes and antennae, organized alphabetically. Instead, he offers a narrative laced with humor that explores the built world, system by system -- beginning with mining raw resources and ending with waste disposal.  In between are covered farming, waterworks, power production, the power grid, telecommunications, roads, bridges, railroads,  aviation, and shipping.  Hayes' writing combines history and description,  allowing the reader to understand not only how things work,  but how they got that way. Photographs abound, most of which were taken by the author himself and include unusual shots.

The fact that this book has gone through three editions indicates it has been a success with readers, and I'm not surprised.  We live in the midst of and are sustained by systems built with human hands, but which few understand. There's enormous appeal in opening the hood on modernity  and gaining even a little knowledge as to how it all works, especially when systems link together. Although this is a guide to the 'industrial landscape',  Hayes' writing brings a strong humanistic touch. The book is about the world humans have created for ourselves, for our needs;  reading the built landscape  is an act not just of technical analysis, but of human interest.   Admittedly,  there are topics in the book harder to appreciate; mining, for instance, usually happens far from where we live.  The majority of this book, however, is the stuff of everyday: traffic lights, radio towers,  food, and highways.  Although I've  done a good bit of reading on infrastructure, Hayes' book was full of interesting facts and stories. For instance,  in the early 1980s a network of eight radio towers were set up to aide in global navigation: one of the stations was maintained by the US Coast Guard in the middle of Nevada. The system only lasted ten years before being supplanted  totally by GPS.

I referred to Kate Asher's The Works as a dream of a book, and I can only repeat the statement here:  it's a gorgeous and helpful piece of work.

Hey, look, it's the Very Large Array!

The Works: Anatomy of a City, Kate Ascher
On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems That Make Our World Work, Scott Huler
Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, Andrew Blum
The Grid: A Journey to the Heart of Our Electrified World, Phillip Schewe
Divided Highways: Building the Interstates, Transforming American Life, Tom Lewis


  1. Sounds like *hours* of fun! What a cool idea...!

    1. I spotted it on a goodreads list called "Underpinnings" -- it's certainly kept me happy this week. I forgot to mention that his focus is American...he mentions British tech a few times only as a comparison. (When commenting on the health of passenger rail in Europe, for instance, or comparing American to English railcar couplings..)

  2. This sounds so unusual and interesting. When I was child I was fascinated by infrastructure and I did a lot of gazing out of the car window. Though I pay less attention as an adult, it is a fascinating subject.

    1. Yes, I was delighted to see a book like this existed. I've been watching it on amazon for a couple of years, waiting for a used copy of the new edition.

  3. This sounds so very interesting, Stephen. Thanks for the review/posting of what seems like a wonder-filled browsing book. I hope my library has a copy.


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