A trip behind the scenes to see how it all works

Raleigh author takes a close look at our roads, bridges, water, sewer and other infrastructure, and gives some advice, too

CorrespondentMay 9, 2010 

  • On the Grid:

    A Plot of land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems That Make Our World Work

    Scott Huler

    Rodale Books, 256pages

An average American uses 93 gallons of water a day, and most of us never give any thought to where the clean water comes from or where the dirty stuff goes. Water, gas, electricity, roads, telephone and railroads are all parts of our infrastructure. And our ignorance about how they work is exceeded only by our irritation when they fail.

In "On the Grid," the ever-curious Scott Huler aims to educate us about infrastructure. To educate himself, the author started at his home in Raleigh and traced the services he - and we - depend on to their sources. The result is a smoothly written account of his infrastructure adventures, including an important conclusion he reaches along the way.

Huler begins his tour with the surveyors who map the land, enabling engineers to route the infrastructure. In the early days, he says, surveying was "all hiking and trigonometry." But now it relies heavily on GPS, a system he explains in detail. He continues in a similar vein, examining the other infrastructure services. He winds up with a look at America's first modern infrastructure, the railroad.

He traces the growth of Raleigh's rail service from its birth in 1833 to its current declining state. Huler goes on a bit long about trains, probably because he loves them. He can hear them from his house. "Wheels squeal, horns sound, boxcars bang - it's like living in a country song," he reports, somewhat romantically.

Because of its nature, the book is chock-full of long descriptions, everything from the bulldozer at Raleigh's recycling shed to the tiny fiber-optic cables used by Time Warner. These descriptive passages can get tedious. Huler saves the day (and the reader) by throwing in fascinating bits of technological and historical trivia.

For instance, Raleigh had to replace the mules that pulled the trolleys in its first public transit system with horses because the mules would sit down in the middle of the road and refuse to move. In the section on highways, we learn that the word "turnpike" comes from "the long staff that blocked the way until the traveler paid."

We also discover that the sewers of Paris and Rome are enormous because their job was to handle stormwater runoff as well as sewage. It wasn't until the late 19th century that Raleigh (and other American cities) created separate systems to handle sewage. And another half-century passed before Raleigh began treating its sewage rather than simply pumping it into the Neuse River. The goad for its treatment plant came, as it often does, from a lawsuit brought by a downstream neighbor.

But Huler has a more serious purpose than just describing the infrastructure that makes modern life possible. American infrastructure, he concludes, is extraordinarily complex and quite reliable. And he credits one group of people for this achievement. "Thank God for engineers," he exclaims.

Still, he knows, as we all do, that our infrastructure is not perfect. Bridges occasionally collapse. Blackouts are not unheard of. The water in some towns is sometimes unsafe to drink. Huler tells us why: We are not adequately maintaining our infrastructure. The consequences can be dire. "Since the end of the Roman Empire," he warns, "allowing your infrastructure to rot has been a fine way to speed societal collapse."

The solution is obvious but painful. We need to invest more money. Because infrastructure plays such an important role in our lives, Huler wholeheartedly supports increased spending. "Get out your wallet," he writes, "and be glad for the opportunity."

Phillip Manning's most recent book is "Chemical Bonds." His book reviews and essays on science are available at www.scibooks.org.

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