Infrastructure Book is Heavy, Useful, Beautiful

Under the Obama administration’s stimulus plan (whatever precise final form it takes), the federal government will likely soon be spending billions to repair and improve America’s infrastructure. To give some hint about what “infrastructure” refers to, reporters often use a shorthand phrase like: “things such as roads and bridges.” Which is fine, because we all know there’s a lot more to infrastructure than roads and bridges.

But what else is there exactly? What besides roads and bridges does the term encompass?

One way—a very rewarding way—to find out is to read Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape by Brian Hayes.

But beware: this is a book of substance. Its ambitious goal to serve as a “guide to the common sights of the built environment…that we pass every day yet seldom really notice” is taken seriously. The result is a tome of 536 oversized pages, which include hundreds of full color photographs. The hardcover book, published in 2005, weighs a little more than four and a half pounds. (That’s a lot less than the 100 pounds or so that a typical manhole cover weighs, but it’s more than four times the weight of the hardcover edition of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities.)

From the chapter titles alone—Out of the Earth, Waterworks, Food and Farming, Oil and Gas, Power Plants, The Power Grid, Communications, On the Road, The Railroad, Bridges and Tunnels, Aviation, Shipping, and Wastes and Recycling—you’ll see that “infrastructure” applies to a whole lot more than roads and bridges.

Although the book calls itself a field guide, the chapters are mainly devoted to narratives about a particular infrastructure topic and are not—as are many field guides—mainly illustrations paired with brief descriptions. For example, while the chapter on the power grid does identify and describe the various types of wires—electricity distribution lines, cable television feeders and guy wires—that you might find on a typical utility pole, the bulk of the chapter is a detailed narrative account of how power lines, substations and local distribution networks work together.

Do not despair: this narrative stuff is easy-to-follow, and is studded with interesting observations that give life and historical context to all the technological detail. For example, in a section about underground mining, Brian Hayes, the book’s author, tells how stables were built deep within the earth to house the armies of animals harnessed to pull ore cars. These animals, he notes, spent their entire lives in the dark.

Hayes is a veteran science writer (he’s a senior write for American Scientist), editor and blogger; he knows how to write about this stuff. I actually read the whole book, from cover to cover, and gathered lots of suggestions for further reading from the very detailed “further reading” appendix.

For me, the chief pleasure of this book is that between its covers one can be immersed in the vocabulary of infrastructure—a vocabulary that’s an odd mixture of the euphemistic, the intimidatingly scientific, playful crudeness and utilitarian directness. Here’s a very small sampling of terms you’ll find:

Air-blast switches
Lighting arrestors
Choke coils
Hot sticks
Grit chambers
Settling tank
Trickling filters
Activated sludge
Sludge digestion
Pig launcher
Floating roof tanks
Fractional distillation column
Crude units
Catalytic cracking unit
Splice case
Lobster pots
Sugar scoop antennas
Cloverleaf interchange…

…and there are hundreds more.

After you surface from your immersion, you may—as the author hopes you will—know a little more about the industrial landscape that surrounds you. As Hayes writes in the introduction: “[Y]ou might as well get to know what it’s called and what it does.”


This book—like manhole covers, bridges, water towers and other examples of infrastructure—is both useful and beautiful. It would be handy to have a word that highlighted this particular combination of virtues. One possibility is
beautilitarian--obviously, from a mashing together of beauty and utilitarian. Another is utiful, which mashes the same two words together in a different way. Beauty and utility both have Latin origins in English, so their marriage shouldn’t be offensive to etymological sticklers.

Beautilitarian has a significant advantage over utiful: it’s already being used, is constantly being “invented” by people looking for a word to combine these qualities. Still, I prefer utiful. I prefer it even though its spelling doesn’t reveal its origins and even though it’s not being used. It sounds better. Said out loud, it’s more suggestive of the word beauty. That is, as long as you pronounce the first syllable correctly—“yute,” not “uht” (as in “utter”).

By contrast,
beautiliarian has a savor of bureaucracy, utilitarianism and proletarians—none of which is necessarily bad but none of which immediately makes you happy like when you see a well-designed cable-stayed bridge or cleverly decorated manhole cover. But wait! Don’t bureaucrats decide where bridges are built and manhole covers placed? Isn’t some ethic of the greater good behind pretty much all actions of government, including the building of infrastructure? And who actually builds the infrastructure? Who lifts the manhole covers? Aristocrats? The bourgeoisie? The creative class? Metrosexuals? I think not. So: beautilitarian!

(Photos--in order of appearance--from Flickr users mag3737, akicQ and Jim Frazier. The original full-sized color versions can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

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