Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Electric City, I: The First Trip

This post is not about Vienna, but Vienna could hardly not be central to it.For a young graduate student, too over-conscious of his own budget to travel elsewhere in Europe, it was a sole encounter with the built environment of a great European city, and one of his all-too-few chances to get to know a strange city by getting on public transit, riding the line until he was as lost as he could get, and then riding it back. (Spoiler alert: that graduate student was me! Had you going there for a minute, didn't I?)

I lived at a youth hostel near the Hutteldorf-Hietzing station of the U4 Unterbahn line, built on the hill above the valley that the Vienna River cuts as it winds south of the heights of the Kahlenberg towards the city whose wet ditch it fills. The estate proper was the  grounds of a bishop's palace, with an Augustinian monastery and a parochial school still near and over an old Imperial hunting reserve, and the U4 follows the course of the river and the old Linz road on its way to town. If you've taken the subway to see the   Schönbrunn Palace, you've taken the U4.

Hey, I know! Let's try not valorising the physical tells of borderline personality disorder and enable a descent into morbid substance abuse!* 

Every day that the new Staatsarchiv was open, I took the U4 to its intersection with the U3 line in the Landstrasse, one of a number of multilevel subway stations somehow existing under massive inner city buildings (in this case a rail station) in some nether realm between the properly underground and the aboveground worlds.

Which I wouldn't recognise, because in the interim they've done this on the site.  Wikipedia.
It was always a marvel to me the way that inner Vienna was linked and tunnelled and built. This is perhaps because the U4-U3 axis is a little eccentric by tourist standards. It was he Landestrasse that Metternich was looking down when he said that the Balkans ended a few blocks down, and the neighbourhood earns its reputation by virtue of being a bit of a backwater. The river meets the Danube Canal around here in (of course), marshy low-lying ground. There tends to be a bit of an off-taste in the air, the architecture is unexplaining, and looking down the shopping district, by guide recalled the Metternich comment, although different strokes for different folks, because the sight of all the Asian touristgirls just reminded me of home!  

The regular tourist gets off the U4 at Karlsplatz, and then either takes the U2 a few blocks more, or ascends to the surface, and, ignoring Karl VI's roccoco masterpiece of a commemorative cathedral, heads out along what was once the great enceinte of the fortress on the great Ringstrasse that was built on the filled-in wet ditch once fed by the Vienna River (I presume through a sluice contained within the works?) That's the way to go to see the Hofburg and its unerwhelming Roman ruins, followed by the local and federal parliament, state and popular operas; museums of art and science, and the new university buildings. It's all quite ideologically numinous, and I could make some strained point about state-building knowledge literally replacing earthwork fortifications, were it not for the fact that the ring road eventually reaches the an entire campus of the University of Vienna devoted to training civil engineers, reminding us that at the same time that the Ringstrasse was built, the Danube was being tamed. Between 1870 and 1875, a new, concrete-bound main bed, 900ft wide and 10ft deep was excavated, with a sacrificial zone 1500ft deep on the left bank for flooding, and fully 2400 acres on the right bank won for construction of a greater Vienna, much of it in the hip Thirteenth District. The point? Well, that would be fifteen hundred acres of flooding ground astride the main Berlin road. Not that the K (u.) K. Heer was planning to lose another battle in the lands between Prussia and Austria. But even so.

I saw a great deal of this area, thanks to setting out to find the site of Wagram without the aid of a map. I never got there, but, in the long run, I think seeing the inner suburbs and the recreational boating areas on the Danube were more inspiring. This is a tamed landscape. It's part of a change that took place in the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century that the majority of people who live in heavily built landscapes don't even realise has occurred (ask a libertarian intellectual about what happens to books in floods, if you don't believe me), and that those who don't hardly even realise needed to be done. If you do live in flooding ground, you probably think that it happens in Mississippi or Port Alice because of where they're built, and that Vienna and London were built somewhere where it just doesn't flood. It ain't true. It just looks that way because of all the concrete and iron that was buried between about 1872 and 1914.

Underground  means  London. London is big and central, so the first railway age ended with there being 7 major trunklines radiated from London and London not being the great rail node. National network integration meant building in London, and once people seriously undertook to tunnel the Thames, the future lay, obviously, underground. At the same time, the quarter-century before the onset of the great agricultural depression in 1872 saw the highpoint of British drainage schemes, with cheap cast iron used in bridges, sluices, pipes and viaducts on an unprecedented scale. The capability was there, indeed, massively overdeveloped. By 1900, it seemed self-evident that London needed to be completely penetrated by rail, that that could only be accomplished underground, and that electricity was the only way to accomplish that.

I could wave now in the direction of high theory, talk about making the city visible to the state, or explore the gendered vision I invoked the moment I chose to use "penetration" as a verb. (Because cities are girls!) But never mind that, because I live in Kitsilano, and you'd better believe that it's real estate that concerns me. Without rail, commuters could not reach the city from the suburbs, and there was money to be made in the London suburbs, hence my emphasis on the political connections of the great real estate developer/newspaper barons. In short, if you're a party baron, and you have an estate near London, you're aligned with  electricity, because electricity is going to deliver upper middle class commuters to the garden estates you're building on old wheat land. 

No wonder we hear people cherrypicking the most unfavourable foreign comparison possible. Ninety percent of American trams were electrified in 1900! Hardly any British ones were! Therefore, London must have 230 miles of electrified track by 1904, and 276 by 1906, and 4000 miles of line in the United Kingdom. That's what you might call overbuilding, and the appearance of a consolidated public London Underground authority covers the usual socialising of losses. Hopefully one day we'll sell of the subways and we can do it again, too. i

I know I play this riff of astonishing development a great deall, but that's because it's astonishing. It also draws, you will be surprised to hear, on personal experience. The first draft of this post was written as a much longer and even more hopelessly digressive chapter, during the crash of the global optical networks running each night by a brand new Spanish Banks mansion that was occupied and then moved out of in a few short weeks. I don't know that that had anything to do with 360Networks, but that's the story I told myself as I panted up that hill.

My explanation? Well, I’m no economist, but a first pass on the data delivers a compellingly Boserupian story. Between 1850 and 1900, the European population (including Russia) rose from 266 to 400 millions, and twenty-three million Americans increased to 76 millions. That being said, we need to understand how capital formation kept up, and how this population growth was achieved. When I fire up Steam and play some Civilization, it’s just a matter of improving farm land, but  in real human demographics, rising life expectancy seems to count for more, and on the already heavily-urbanised North Sea littoral, that seems to demand accounting for the urban population replacement deficit, and, in turn, on improvements to public health. Soap and bleach aside, I'm about to get very recursive, because I need to talk about more, earlier, penetrations of the urban body, by water mains, sewers, and the gas industry. (I’d say gas lines, given their importance for establishing the legal context of electrification, but the need to deliver coal to gasification plants probably made canals more important.)

Or is it even more recursive than that? Omnibusses started making suburban living convenient in the eighteenth century, back when suburban meant "more than twelve blocks from the cathedral. That is, in part, a story about Early Modern hydraulic control, and about incremental technological change, as there are some pretty pressing urban health issues with horse-drawn vehicles. It is hardly surprising that the tramway entrepeneurs were looking for new solutions in the 1860s, or that there was a piggy-backing effect. Canalside steam generators could burn the slack coal building up around gasification plants and coal markets, and a low-voltage direct-current ground-line didn't have to penetrate urban infrastructure very far to run tram motors on canalside lines. The synergy here is most obvious in the early history of Chicago Edison,  but we only care about that if we're engaged in the silly argument that "American Nineteenth Century technological development is teh r0xx0rs because of democracy/property/minarchy/Protestantism." Which, if I were going to argue the point, would lead me to talk about more of history's underapppreciated patent trolls. (Hint, two names, rhymes if you leave off the "s," think early telecom: "Horseshit sells.")

It’s amazing to think that at the very same time that philosophers were trying to find a “modern” theory that would explain the crazy things that telegraphs and telephones were already doing that an international network of dockland refrigerated warehouses and reefer ships was springing up to serve the just-invented supermarket with Australian and Argentinian frozen meat. This is the 1880s we're talking about (source, 45). Telephone line cross-talk was so bizarrely incomprehensible that mainstream researchers were trying to use it to talk to the dead! This is starting before industrial bicycling!

So electric lines were no novelties in the 1880s. Full penetration of the urban core does require new electrical engineering technologies, but they are on their way. I'm just not satisfied that I'm telling the story in the richness of detail that it needs. It's easy to theorise about what happened between 1860 and 1914. I've already waved at Boserup's version, and I began researching this in reaction to Mokyr's. It's precisely in the richness of the details that I sense that we'll find a satisfying explanation, one that might help our poor species do it again instead of wallowing in our savings glut and incipient deflation. 

So what is the map of my trip going to look like? I have a starting point, the early modern city as hydraulic control apparatus. (If you'll allow  me a generous definition of what that might be so as to include towns simply built on high ground.) Perhaps less universally applicable, but still important in Britain, is the cast iron/gas nexus.

Where I'm trying to get is clear enough, too. No-one is hiding the concrete-built, electrically pumped sub-basements of the modern electrical city. We just don't go out of our way to look for it. Usually.  The problem is in the middle. We have a transformation that goes to completion between 1850 and 1914 that implicates population growth, rising life expectancies, and the colonisation of the bonanza wheat lands. We have public education, social change, all that stuff. Is this a simple story of population growth driven by cheap wheat or  public health. That has huge implications. Right now, I like the hypothesis that the Columbian Exchange was history's great free lunch. That implies that population growth is driving technological change rather than technological change driving population growth, which, if I could establish it from a historian of technology's point of view, would have huge implications for the economists that are in charge of actually running the engines.

Now,  I think even this first trip into the electric city starts to justify the claim. I've followed broad boulevards of easy access (die, metaphor, die!) These are, apparently, easy technologies to develop, low-hanging fruit to be harvested pretty much at random, compared to the slow pace of modern technological development. But if they're so easy, why is history so long? What's going on? Is something (fashion? Demand? National security concerns?) driving unprecedented levels of available human energy  into new fields? Yes. Or that's my current story. It's hopscotch and episodic because rising populations opened up new possibilities that were exploited somewhat adventitiously. So I'm repudiating the idea of Malthusian limits to growth? Wow. I sure do feel precarious out on this limb! (At least I find support in unexpected places for claiming that human demographic growth is much more fragile than Malthus supposed. But then I have to explain why  the Columbian Exchange changed that.)

Next up in tales of the electric city: Polo and Bicycles.

*I spent enough time looking for a remix of the Trolley Song to feel a certain need to scold. Mental illness isn't a tragic flaw. It's a treatable condition. The victims want help, hard as it can be to deliver. Here's Rich Burlew  offering what might be, if you squint, a call out.

iLeslie Hannah, Electricity Before Nationalisation: A Study in the Development of the British Electrical Supply Industry to 1948 (London: Macmillan, 1979): 18—9;  Calvin C. Burwell, “Transportation: Electricity's Changing Importance Over Time,” in Electricity in the American Economy: Agent of Technological Progress. ed. Sam Schurr, 209--232 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1990): 210; “Progress in the Use of Electricity,” Engineering, 4 March 1904, 334.


  1. It wasn't just in the London area that the trams and subways and elevateds were built for the landowners.
    In America we had a situation where the financial types would buy up big chunks of land from farmers every few thousand feet and build a tram down the road with a stop at the land they owned, and build commerical and multifamily residence buildings at the stops.
    The beautiful Huntington Library (really a museum) in Los Angeles was built by one of these people.
    I wonder why we didn't do it that way with the Interstate Highway system? Would have helped out financing if all the malls were owned and leased out by the government.

  2. Well, I can't speak for London in this one, but there's a pretty clear (re)development effect from separated-grade heavy transit in Vancouver, with Burnaby's Metrotown as the classic example.

    By fiddling with density limits, urban governments in B.C.'s Lower Mainland have captured some portion of the profit that accrues to landowners when a major transit stop is built in an area. I'm sure that that's true elsewhere, it's just that I'm not an urban development theorist, and don't want to sound off about it.

    I also can't help thinking that this has something to do with the interminable debate over LRT versus separate grade lines.