Castles in Decline

castleThe decline of the castle can be summed up in one word: Gunpowder. Really seems a bit simple to just leave it there, so here goes:

I generally avoid military history…always felt that people building things is more important to history than people destroying things. For any student of ancient architecture, though, castles are impossible to ignore.

Castles dominated Europe for more than 900 years. When someone thinks of the Middle Ages, castles are probably the first things on their mind.

There were two major types of castles. Not architectural types; I’m talking about the reasons the castles were built in the locations they were. Rural castles were the first type, generally placed in a location with some sort of important resource—fertile land, mines, mills, or maybe a major road or mountain pass.

The second type, urban castles, were built to control the local populace and maintain control over trade routes. All of them served as centers for administration and as the habitations of the nobility.

Castles were not the only medieval fortifications. There were plenty of different kinds of forts and garrisons and such. The key difference between castles and the other fortifications is that castles were actually used for administration.

Only a century after gunpowder gained common use did artillery grew to be a major threat to castles. From that point, the decline of the castle was not so swift as you might expect. People built a few good castles after this time, a few of them even constructed to resist artillery—massively thick walls packed with dirt, rubble, and other debris.

The true death knell actually wasn’t artillery actually destroying the castles by artillery. It was a loss of confidence in the castles. The nobility simply started moving out, into grand palaces and estates.

The fall of castles as the center of European life was one of the main reasons that larger standing armies became a necessity, and led to one of the bloodiest eras in European history.

Space Elevators: Going Up?

When it comes to getting into space, rockets are pretty much staircases at best. More like ladders, really.

McCoy Fields: Going Up!

Space Elevator

That’s a bizarre thing to say, I know, but hear me out. Rockets are expensive and dangerous, but they’re still the best way we have of getting to space. (There are a couple of other ways, like Orion drives, but given that those things basically ride nuclear explosions…) There’s a theoretical method, that works much, much better: the space elevator. (Hence the staircase joke. Well, I thought it was funny, at least. So I’m not a professional comedian, so sue me.)

A space elevator is, essentially, a long cable—anchored at the equator, extending out into orbit. It works sort of like when you spin while holding a rope, and the rope is suspended above the ground by centrifugal force. (Or is it centripetal? I can never remember.) It’s not quite the same, of course, since it has to have a counterweight at the end, along with several other requirements.

Once the cable is up, cargo and passenger pods would be able to freely move up and down it, at much, much lower costs than rockets. Did I mention how expensive rockets are? Really, really expensive. As in: $10,000 to $25,000 per kilogram they need to lift. (For those of you who don’t have your measurement conversion tables memorized, one kilogram is equal to a bit more than two pounds.)

Carbon Tube

Carbon Tube

So why aren’t we using them now? Well, because we don’t have a strong enough cable. People keep bringing up carbon nanotubes as an option, but since we don’t have those yet, we just can’t build it.

The space elevator would be more than possible on other, smaller objects in the Solar System. We could build a space elevator on the moon with ordinary Kevlar.

Space elevators aren’t the only ideas for getting to space without rockets. Other ideas are floating out there, ranging from rocket sleds (which does actually involve rockets, but in a much more affordable manner) to skyhooks, which resemble something that a mad scientist, a six year old, and an engineer would design together if asked to create the nuttiest amusement park ride ever, all while hooked to caffeine IV drips.

Honoring the Hurriquake Nail

The HurriQuake

The HurriQuake

Disaster-proofing homes is not something you want to skimp on, especially if you’re living somewhere with tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, or door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen at six in the morning. Generally speaking, building codes require a certain level of disaster-proofing in new buildings, depending on the area. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Disaster proofing can, of course, get pretty frivolous. There really isn’t a particularly compelling reason to install blast-proof wallpaper in your average suburban home in America (anyone who lived through part of the Cold War remembers bomb shelter advertisements).

One technical advancement that I do find pretty worthwhile, however, is the HurriQuake nail. (Engineers should never get to name things.) This is a bizarre-looking cross between a nail and a screw, and it’s specifically designed to withstand extreme amounts of stress, from causes ranging from high wind to earthquakes. It actually won Best Innovation of the Year from Popular Science in 2006.

The nail is actually so strong that the boards the HurriQuake nail is hammered/screwed into usually fail before the nail does. And it’s cheap enough that it only drives up the cost of houses by a few dollars.

That’s not to say the HurriQuake nail is perfect. If you put one in the wrong spot, good luck getting it out. The same spikes that keep it lodged in boards—even under extreme force—are largely capable of resisting much more force than you can apply.

isabelOf course, fancy nails alone aren’t enough to disaster-proof a house. You’ve got to design the whole building, foundation to roof, with that goal in mind. It’ll cost more and take more work, too, but this is a key part of designing a house to fit the environment it’s in. Which is one reason you see so many antique houses outlasting suburban cookie-cutter houses.

Giants and a Rock Made of Cheese

I’m not much of a fiction reader, but I did come across a rather entertaining folk tale a while back while researching historical ramps. There is a rock formation in Northern Ireland called the Giant’s Causeway, made of thousands of hexagonal basalt columns, which can form when lava cools slowly.

Giant's Causeway

Giant’s Causeway

Local legend tells that the giant Fionn mac Cumhaill built the Giant’s Causeway—across the sea from Ireland all the way to Scotland—in response to a challenge from the Scottish giant Benandoner. When Fionn saw Benandoner, though, and realized how much bigger he was, he would have fled, but his wife, Oona, had him dress up as a baby. She tucked him into a crib, then began cooking.

When Benandoner arrived across the causeway, Oona told him that he was away, and invited the Scottish giant inside to wait. When he saw Fionn in the crib he decided that, to have a baby that big, Fionn must be truly enormous. Benandoner then tried to intimidate Oona by crushing rocks with his pinky finger, but she just smiled at him and handed a rock to Fionn, who crushed it to cheese. (It helped, of course, that Fionn’s rock had always been cheese).

Oona then gave Benandoner and Fionn each a griddle-cake (Irish name for a pancake). Benandoner bit into his and broke a tooth, which probably had something to do with the pan Oona had baked into it. Fionn, meanwhile, ate his with gusto.

Fingal's Cave

Fingal’s Cave

Oona invited Benandoner to feel how sharp and strong the baby’s teeth were. Benandoner, feeling his broken tooth and watching Fionn eat his griddle-cake, declined. He politely begged leave of Oona. He then fled across the causeway, destroying it behind him, not wanting to meet the father of that monstrous baby. Only the two ends were left inact—the columns of the Giant’s causeway, and the columns of Fingal’s Cave, in Scotland (which has plenty of legends of its own).

Fionn hopped out of the cradle, praising Oona’s wit, bravery, and beauty. Oona just laughed and handed him a broom to clean up the broken rocks and food.

Civilization and Roads

Good roads are absolutely essential to civilization. Many of the most successful countries in history were hugely dependent on their roads for their success. To my mind, the two ancient civilizations with the most impressive road systems are the Roman and Incan Empires.

The Incan road system, the shorter of the two, was still more than 20,000 miles long. The Incans did such a good job that much of the road is still useable today—even segments that haven’t seen a lick of maintenance in four centuries—though more than 75 percent of it has been destroyed by Spaniards and modern construction. The Incan roads were heavily used by the Chasquis, a network of runners that sent messages and valuable, lightweight goods across the empire, using relays. The individual Chasqui ran as much as a hundred and fifty miles per day through the mountains—that’s six marathons. The roads were also used heavily by normal traffic: trade on alpacas and llamas, etc.

McCoy Fields

Ancient Roman Rest Stop?

Rome’s roads are, without a doubt, the best known of all ancient road systems—not surprising, since it’s the best known ancient civilization of all time. There were 250,000 miles of roads in the network, an order of magnitude larger than the Incan network.

It’s not to say that the Incan network wasn’t an incredible piece of engineering and architecture; it was, but the Romans were just utterly obsessed with road building. There is an astonishing number of these roads still in use, whether covered in modern construction or even in their original form.

Yes, roads are an absolutely elemental part of civilization. I should put this all into perspective, though. America has nearly four MILLION miles of roads. Our population dwarfs Ancient Rome or the Incan Empire and, of course, the American population alone is greater than that of the entire world during either of those time periods.

So, next time you’re upset about construction, just sit back and think about that before complaining. It’s a small price to pay. (Unless it’s in front of your house early in the morning. That’s just the worst.)