Starting in 1867 and peaking sometime in the 1930’s, the Sanborn Map Company produced fire insurance maps for over 12,000 U.S. towns and cities. Employed to assess risk and reduce the need to send an underwriter to every property, the maps are wildly detailed, showing machine shops, blast furnaces, and various forges in an example from Bethlehem Steel. They sometimes included the population size, the prevailing direction of the wind, the location of paints and varnishes, and the number of both indoor and outdoor night watchmen. As one historian put it, “the Sanborn maps survive as a guide to American urbanization that is unrivaled by other cartography and, for that matter, by few documentary resources of any kind.”
I fell in love with Sanborns while pouring over microfilm of early 20th century Los Angeles. Attempting to tie a briefly mentioned industrial incident in a dusty publication to an actual location, it was painstaking, exasperating, and ultimately unfruitful work. But there was something so captivating about the maps' beautiful blend of utility and design: I found myself going back to the library to check “one last time,” as if the meticulousness of the maps meant there had to be an answer.
Unfortunately, I haven’t encountered many current resources - digital or otherwise - that create that same draw, and I find myself wondering: what practical, but seemingly mundane, activities or materials will serve future historians with such art and depth? (And no, it’s probably not twitter.)
Anyway, the Library of Congress has over 35,000 items in its online collection, so go get lost in your favorite city.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~11% of opens) was a brief (but super fascinating) summary on why trains have conical wheels. In the Member's Slack, our reading group finished The Big Score, culminating in a discussion with the author Michael Malone. This week we're starting The New Breed: What Our History with Animals Reveals about Our Future with Robots, with the author, Kate Darling, joining our final discussion 2021-11-12.
Planning & Strategy.
- In one of the least affordable cities in the world, it is harder than ever to build new housing. And yet, on a small urban parcel in Vancouver, the Squamish Nation is planning a C$3 billion redevelopment project that will not only add 6000 housing units, but only occupy about 15% of the 10.48 acres, keeping the rest green space. Forcibly removed from their lands at the turn of the 20th century, the Squamish Nation won back control of the reserve in 2003. Now empowered by new legislation and unfettered by local zoning laws, they can develop these lands as they see fit, including as a highly-dense redevelopment that also aims to secure long term affordable housing for members of the nation.
- The history of how NYC got clean water involves Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, the Chase-Manhattan Bank, cholera, and a massive fire.
Making & Manufacturing.
- Amazon has apparently made a really bad robot. As Motherboard/VICE reports, while the real problem is surveillance (it's an inhouse sentry), the robotics are apparently equally horrifying. The robot will “throw itself down a flight of stairs if presented the opportunity.” As my brother noted, this is an extremely expensive form of reinforcement learning.
- Speaking of robots that *can* handle adverse environments, DARPA just finished its Subterranean Challenge (SubT). Over the course of the last three years, robots have been forced to navigate, map, and identify objects in mines, caves, and an abandoned nuclear power plant as DARPA seeks to push the capabilities of autonomous systems forward. SubT is part of the same series of competitions - DARPA Grand Challenges - that accelerated autonomous vehicle development. PBS’ Nova did an episode on a 2005 competition, which had driverless vehicles racing across the desert in southern Nevada.
- The Gastropod podcast on tofu’s history and eventual adoption in the West. Before the invention of the grist mill, soybeans were mostly relegated to being used as condiments (e.g., miso or soy sauce) but the ability to grind beans and turn them into a slurry was transformative. While the next metamorphosis from slurry to tofu is somewhat opaque, there are several theories, including the ‘cheese inspiration theory,’ which suggests that the ancient Chinese adopted diary processing techniques from Mongolians or East Indians to go from soy milk to curds. While there is little evidence to support this theory, watching Eater’s visit to the oldest Tofu factory in America, I can’t help but feel as though I’m also watching cheese being made.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- I live in DC, not far from Rock Creek. During sweltering summers, it’d be nice to take a dip, but like many old northeastern and midwestern cities, DC has combined sewers. When it rains, sewage flows into the rivers and creeks, which is one reason why it’s still illegal to swim in them. While we think of combining sewage and storm water as deeply problematic today, it turns out that planners at the time also recognized it. This Distillations Podcast touches on how in the late 19th century the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Health dissented with the decision to utilize combined sewers, but didn’t have another solution. Although Philly has finally managed to find its alternative - leveraging rain gardens, wetlands and other green infrastructure to mitigate runoff - it took well over 100 years to do so. And yet, this disappointing timeline is exceptional because most organizations and institutions are burdened by path dependence, which suggests change is not the norm.
- Like many folks, I am currently attempting to avoid purchasing a new vehicle during the pandemic and instead am making the best of my aging 17-year-old Toyota. (Note there too I’m in good company: last year the average age of vehicles in the U.S. hit a high of 12.1 years.) This has meant numerous trips to repair shops and lots of shop talk. One of the more interesting tidbits that came up was related to material substitution: one mechanic noted that he’s seen a lot of vehicles with gnawed and nibbled bushings. Interestingly, about a decade ago, car manufacturers like Ford began experimenting with substituting soy and other plant based materials for petroleum in certain components. Unfortunately, this environmentally-friendly switch may be palatable in more ways than one - it seems rodents may find soy pretty appetizing.
Distribution & Logistics.
- Perhaps it’s confirmation bias, but I love this study on the impact of Craigslist to municipal and solid waste (MSW) generation. The author found that Craigslist’s debut in a given location reduced annual per capita MSW by 2-6%. For a city like New York, which spent $2.3 billion on MSW management in 2016, this could represent an annual savings of $45 million to $140 million.
- The impact of the chip shortage on automotive companies keeps making the news, but flying over the Great Plains last week I was reminded that agriculture has been impacted as well. Yet, that seems to be the least of the industry’s concerns: inflation, wild land and equipment prices, reductions in federal payments to farmers, and the potential for falling corn and soybean prices could rapidly change the booming sector's fortunes.
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- NASA is going to slam a rocket into an asteroid next year to evaluate whether this is a solid solution to avert planetary disaster.