What Modern Water Engineers Can Learn from Ancient Infrastructure

From TED: The ancient ingenuity of water harvesting: With wisdom and wit, Anupam Mishra talks about the amazing feats of engineering built centuries ago by the people of India’s Golden Desert to harvest water. These structures are still used today — and are often superior to modern water megaprojects. You’re likely familiar with TED (the organization has logged 50 million views since they began posting video two years ago) and TED Talks have become a powerful cultural force. TED presents short lectures from some of the best thinkers in the world from a broad range of disciplines with the mission of “spreading ideas” via “riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world.” TED began in 1984 as a conference to bring together people from the increasingly melding worlds of Technology, Entertainment, and Design. Since then its scope has widened to embrace prominent thought leaders from around the globe. See Anupam Mishra’s bio here or access an interactive transcript of this video.

Another Reason I’m an Anglophile

Just when we think our crush on the country, culture and people of England was getting out of hand, along comes a note from Ferrers (aka The Pie Man) to further stoke our Anglophile tendencies. He pointed us to the delightful BWTAS –  the British Water Tower Appreciation Society. The group “exists to connect enthusiasts of water towers to share their enjoyment of their artistic, cultural, architectural, historical, social and engineering significance.”

We’re in favor of that! But the best part of their “about us” statement is this “It is a society that tries not to burden itself with administration duties, committees and all that stuff (although it has them). It is whatever the members can make of it themselves.”

What will become of Jumbo, the largest remaining Victorian water tower in Britain?

What will become of Jumbo, the largest remaining Victorian water tower in Britain?

Visit their website or follow them on Twitter, but be sure to set aside some time as it is packed with tons entertaining information, not only from the UK but from all other world. (In fact, I saw plenty of US-based water-tower stuff that I’d never come across myself elsewhere!)

The Society has organized exhibitions of water tower arts and crafts, given talks, organized tours, written guidebooks on water towers, and appeared on radio and TV. Its diverse membership includes architects, artists, historians, civil engineers, utility company employees, tower owners “as well as ‘just plain folk.”

If you’re UK-based, lucky you! All the rest of us should bookmark the BWTAS site in our big-fat, “someday” UK travel folder.

When Protozoa Came to the Big Screen

Fierce and cannibalistic! The battle to the death will be primitive and unmerciful! This is not a sensational film coming to your local multiplex, but a way-back look back at 76-year old street science.

These days, we can watch protozoa battling on screen whenever we’re online, but in 1933 this was shocking, amazing stuff! The article from the February, 1933 issue of Modern Mechanix covers the jaw-dropping marvel that awaited visitors to that year’s World’s Fair Hall of Science…a protozoa death-match unfolding in a single drop of water. (Side note: deflation! Was 25¢, now 15¢!) The article in its entirety:

Screening Fierce Battle in Drop of Water

YOU might not believe it, but ferocious and cannibalistic battles are staged every moment of the day in the drops of water that make up the rivers, lakes and oceans of the world.

A few of these battles are to be brought to the screen for the amusement and amazement of visitors to the Hall of Science at the 1933 World’s Fair. What will make this feat possible is a special projector which throws on the screen in a greatly magnified scale what is seen at the eyepiece of a powerful microscope.

Drops of water containing various species of unfriendly protozoa will be joined on the slide under the microscope connected with the projector. The battle to the death will be primitive and unmerciful, for protozoa are hungry and they ask no quarter and give no quarter. The artist’s drawing above shows how the projector and screen will be rigged up for the show.

And looking closer, the devil really is in the details! What are these creatures doing battle? Are there any microbiologists out there who can identify these “unfriendly protozoa?

Detail: Two unfriendly, unidentified protozoans

Not having any microbiology reference works available, our “research department” turned to a freely available tool, the Tin Eye reverse image search engine, which diligently checked 1.12 billion images but failed to find anything quite like it across the wild, wide expanse of the Internet.

Getting Annoyed in Appomattox

We sometimes see common idiocy in some uncommon places.

Those of you who know your U.S. history may know that Appomattox Court House in Virginia is where Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant negotiated the terms of surrender which led to the end of the U.S. Civil War. It’s now a national historical site and the majority of the buildings are original and have been maintained just as they were on April 9, 1865. It’s a pleasant way to spend a Sunday, as we recently  did.

The historic event actually took place in the McLean House. Adjacent to this structure is a period ice house which back in the day enabled people to store ice during the winter months for use throughout the spring and summer. During the winter, ice and snow would be taken into the ice house and packed with straw or sawdust as an insulator. It would remain frozen here, often until the following winter, and was used primarily to store perishable foods.

Icehouse: McLean House, Appomattox

Icehouse: Appomattox Court House, Virginia

So of course we peer inside and we can see… what? Someone’s discarded water bottle? Someone’s lazy litter inside this laboriously restored and maintained period structure? As in, right in the middle of this important historical site, some Jack-a stepped 150 years back in time to flip their flippin’ plastic HERE?

Appomattox: inside the icehouse

Appomattox: inside the icehouse

I just can’t fathom this. After our irritated temper tantrum over this sight, Thirsty in Suburbia intern Virginia Leonard was able to fish it out with a stick…not easy, as it was well out of our reach. And then, to put it where it belongs. Whoever you are who tossed it in the icehouse, you know where you can put it.


Bonus water shot for river geeks… an interesting sight at the park.

Bottled Water, Same Old Story

Back we go, more than a century, to this nostalgic photo of the Italian Festa, Mott Street, New York City, May 16th, 1908.

It’s fun to zoom in and study the details. And what’s that there to the right? Why, it’s our turn-of-the-century bottled water vendor, probably ready to serve up better-than-tap refreshment to festival-goers. Just like today! (Though we’d never criticize the 1908 populace for partaking… no one’s nostalgic for the tap water back then!) Note the handy bottle supply, hygienically stored on the open-air wagon top!

The orginal photo is a 5×7 glass negative from the George Grantham Bain Collection, via Shorpy. (Here, you can view this image in high-resolution and take in many more of the Roosevelt-era details.)

I was unable to resist the urge to annotate in some way, soooo..

The Eafieft Ways to Raife Water

Today we shew a glimpse into the brainstorms of 18th century water engineers as they struggle with the same-old age-old dilemma of raifing water, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Gallery. This 1701 book is “A Work both Ufeful, Profitable and Delightful for all forts of People.” (Put aside any pressing work you really should do, and instead peruse all the new and rare inventions from this text; Neptune, horses and birds, yea!)

Solar Powered!

Plate IX. To raise a standing water, by means of the sun.

A fuftainable folution!

Plate V. To make a dyal with the course of a natural fountain, the which shall move very true, without being subjec to …

Made the chisel obsolete.

Plate XII. An engine of great service to bore elms or other trees to make pipes to conveigh water, and for other uses.

Note: We are opposed to solving problems by violence.

Plate XXVI. Force-pump, which is one of the best inventions. They can force the water with great violence to 50 or 60 feet…

Rest Stop Education: The Mighty Mississip-pee

We were road-trippin’ down I-80 through Iowa looking for fast relief at the rest stop. We got the promised “rest” PLUS we got an unexpected history lesson about the mighty Mississip-pee in what the information sheet called “this new generation of Iowa rest area.”

You see, this rest stop has a historical theme, one which was designed to “mimic the character of the Mississippi riverfront.” Good idea! Why expend a massive effort to attract visitors to your museums when you have a fully-captive audience pulling in off the interstate?

Little did I know that this location played a unique role in the history of the 2552-mile long river. It is here, in the middle of Iowa, that the river flows decidedly from east to west.

Looking for the ladies room? Just follow the steel “trestles” right into the building.

Public artwork is integrated throughout the site that highlights the importance of Mississippi River transportation in Iowa–tows, barges, and the lock and dam system. Look up and you’ll see a wall mural depicting a vehicle-rail bridge.

Look down and you’ll see a floor mural that depicts the Army Corp of Engineer’s boundary marker, the river’s locks and dams, all connecting to a floor map of the “Quad Cities.”

What’s that on the walls? They’re terra cotta blocks and tiles that are designed to help visitors imagine “locking” through a Mississippi River dam. They “rise and fall” like the water levels and depict tows, barges and their valuable cargo…”coal going upstream and grain going down.”

And then… the promised payoff! (Not sure what those numbers represent; maybe there’s a height restriction for this loo, somewhat like roller coasters!) And just in time, because as fascinated as I am learning all these river facts, I came here to go! When it comes to rest stop public art, I think I prefer function before form!

According to the onsite plaque, credit goes to artist David B. Dahlquist working with French Reneker Associates (Engineers) and Yaggy Colby Associates (Architecture and Landscaping).