Archives: Of a Certain Age

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original posts. This week in my From the Archives series: if it smelts fishy, it could be the remnants of the Stone Age. Or Bronze. Or Iron.


ape2-300x168We’ve heard of the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. And yet, we aren't commonly taught why those ages occurred in that order. Which is just too bad, since it's pretty darn interesting.

The Stone Age has a simple explanation. Stone is easier to work than metal, and more common. We figured out how to use it first.

Ancient humans actually did master use of some metal during this time period — namely meteoric iron, a natural alloy of nickel and iron present in iron meteorites. We sometimes heated it but more often shaped it, by cold hammering, into tools and arrowheads; the stuff was quite difficult to work.

The ancient Inuit inhabitants of Greenland, though, used iron much more extensively than other Stone Age people. Greenland has the world's only major deposit of telluric iron, also called native iron, which is iron that occurs in its pure metal state.

Looking for the right tool to advance our evolution

Native copper, however, is found worldwide (as are native gold, silver, and platinum, all of which are of limited use for tools.) The hardest and strongest common native metal on Earth, copper proved one of the most useful.

Eventually we learned to smelt metals from ore and, around 2500 BC, learned to alloy the two together to make bronze, kicking off The Bronze Age. Tin was somewhat rare outside the British Isles, parts of China, and South Africa, so it actually ended up commanding prices higher than gold in many regions. We frequently used zinc, more common than tin, to produce brass.

Iron smelting first occurred circa 1800 BC but didn't become common until 1200 BC. Eventually, of course, iron became the metal of choice for civilization—it's just much stronger than most of the other options.

Yard Ramp Guy Blog: Bracing for the Elements

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy shows us how he's long been prepared for weather-related events.

Click HERE to discover a textbook-perfect example of being proactive.

Archives: Raising a City

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original posts. This week in my From the Archives series: It turns out that buildings can be very moving experiences.


Stay with me on this one: yes, it begins on a pretty sour note…but I promise you there’s a happy ending.

Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters

Nineteenth century Chicago was plagued by, well, plagues. Epidemics of typhoid fever, dysentery, and cholera repeatedly hit the city. The 1854 cholera outbreak killed six percent of the entire city's population.

The reason for those diseases, and a common culprit throughout history: poor-to-nonexistent drainage. Standing water in a city makes a perfect breeding area for all sorts of nasty illness. In fact, disease historically was so bad that the majority of medieval cities experienced negative population growth—more people died of diseases than were born.

The only reason cities didn't depopulate was a near constant influx of immigration from the country. This changed steadily around the world when city infrastructure and medicine improved. Disease was still quite common in the 19th century, but Chicago's level of disease was quite unusual in an American city for the time.

In 1856, an engineer named Ellis S. Chesbrough developed a plan for a city-wide sewer system that would solve the problem. It was unusually ambitious: he wanted to raise the entire city six feet, then build sewers below the newly raised buildings.

Sounds insane, right? That's what I thought, too, except they actually did it—raising the first building in January 1858: a four-story, 70 foot long, 750-ton brick structure lifted on two hundred jackscrews to its new level, without the slightest damage. Engineers boosted more than 50 masonry buildings that year alone.

In 1860, a team of engineers actually managed to raise up half a city block in one go—an estimated 35,000 tons lifted nearly five feet into the air by 600 men using 6,000 jackscrews. They were so confident in the process that businesses didn't even close during the the five days it took to lift the whole thing.

On the last day of the process, before they began work on the new foundations, they allowed crowds to walk underneath the buildings, among the jacks. At another point, a six-story hotel was raised up without the guests even realizing it.

Only masonry buildings were considered worth raising; they placed wood-framed buildings on large rollers and moved them to the outskirts of town, usually without even bothering to empty out the furniture first.

This was so common that, for quite a few years, people considered looking out the window to see a building going past just another day of normal traffic.

The Yard Ramp Guy Blog: Angling Yard Ramp Strategy

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy riffs on Yogi Berra's great quotation: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

Click HERE to see what direction The Yard Ramp Guy chose to take.

From the Vault: The Mark of Civilization

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. This week: Aqueducts and pyramids and highways, oh my.


Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 3.0

Roman Aqueduct, c. 1st century, Spain

When you think about the Roman Empire, one of the first things that pops into mind is their aqueduct system…unless you've been watching too much TV, in which case you’re likely thinking of their gladiators or legions.

I feel pretty comfortable saying that the reason Rome was so stable for so long was due to their roads, aqueducts, sewer system, and other civil projects. It always grates me a little bit when people talk about the gladiatorial games being used to pacify the population—they certainly did that, but this was secondary to having clean water, plenty of food, and sanitation.

Thanks to the Roman Empire's extensive civil improvements, Rome itself had a population of more than a MILLION people. That's just nuts for a city in the ancient world. Athens maybe had 300K, and it was enormous for its time. There are only a few other ancient cities of comparable size at all.

That's where Rome's real success lay: not in conquest but in civil planning and construction. I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record in this blog space, going on about how people focused on war as the key part of history bugs me. (Maggie jokes sometimes that she is worried I'll start buying Grateful Dead shirts and growing a ponytail.) It's not about hating war, though. It's about acknowledging that what we build and how we build it is, ultimately, the most important legacy of a society.

Eisenhower's greatest accomplishment as President? The Interstate Highway System. What do we remember about the Egyptians? The pyramids. If you look at any society from more than a couple decades or so, what part of it lasts? Their construction.

The aqueducts have stood for millennia. I rest my case.

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Photo: Diego Delso, delso,photo, License CC-BY-SA

The Yard Ramp Guy Blog: A Stadium View

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy, without bragging (not his style), highlights yard ramp placement with high-profile sports teams and what he calls "service without complaint, needing virtually no maintenance, and readily repositioned to be placed into and out of service when needed." Bravo, I say.

Click HERE to read all about it.

Archives: The Incan Terraces

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. This week: Terraces⏤the opposite of ramps?


The Inca are surely one of my favorite ancient cultures. Much of this is due to the unusual amount of research available on their building techniques and architecture. The pieces of their engineering I've been reading about lately are their terraces.

Terraces might be something of an opposite of ramps, but that just makes them more fascinating. Living among some of the steepest mountains in the world, the Incans had to improvise heavily when it came to all sorts of facets of their life. Their terraces did a lot more than provide flat areas for food production (though don't get me wrong: that was just a little bit important); they also helped to control erosion and landslides.

In fact, much of Incan architecture was built to be earthquake resistant, and the terraces were no exception. They were so well built that, despite the Incan's comparatively low technological level, their terraces survived from Pizarro's conquest of their empire, totally forgotten, all the way up to the twentieth century, when they were rediscovered.

Do you think anything we build today would last that long without maintenance? Not likely. This workmanship stretched all the way through their construction, too.

The Incans by no means had a monopoly on agricultural terraces, of course. Terrace farming has arisen independently in dozens of cultures worldwide, with almost as many individual styles. It's almost certainly the most efficient method of farming in the mountains.

The most famous are almost certainly the rice terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras: they've actually been declared a UNESCO heritage site. You've almost certainly seen images of them before. They've been farmed continuously for something like 2000 years, which is absolutely crazy. That's not just architecture, it's a way of life.

The Yard Ramp Guy Blog: The Power of Powder

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy writes his own cautionary tale of sorts: some seemingly sci-fi tale of producing a yard ramp with a 3-D printer.

Click HERE to read all about it.

Archives • Switchbacks: Ramp Diversity

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. This week: Italy makes me dizzy.


There is one kind of ramp I absolutely love, except when I'm using it, in which case I absolutely hate it. That ramp is the switchback.

Anyone who's done much mountain driving learns to hate switchbacks, even though they're some of the most cost-effective engineering tricks we have in the mountains. (Much, much cheaper than tunnels, that's for sure.) Truckers especially hate them. I've known some who will go hours out of their way to avoid them. I think gearheads are the only ones who enjoy them.

stylized photo of Stelvio Pass in Italy

Careful, there.

One of the craziest examples of the breed is the Stelvio Pass in Italy. It's one of the highest roads in the Alps and has 75 switchbacks. Seventy-five! Not a road you want to drive fast on, or even drive on at all if you can help it. Apparently, it’s so dangerous during the winter and spring that they close it completely during those seasons.

Of course, being dangerous, gearheads flock to it. That British car show everyone likes, “Top Gear” (I don't watch that show anymore after what they said about the F150), declared it the greatest driving road in the world. (Or at least in Europe. Have you seen the pictures of the crazy roads they have in the mountains in India?)

The Italian bicycle Grand Tour frequently goes through Stelvio Pass. (The Giro d'Italia, sister race to the Tour de France. I try to catch all three of the Grand Tours when I can.) Thousands and thousands of cyclists ride through Stelvio Pass every year.

It's easier to find info on battles fought at the pass than it is to find anything beyond basic info on its construction or maintenance, but that's pretty constant. Historians are obsessed with wars, despite the fact that construction and architecture affect us way more.

I'm working on persuading Maggie on this European vacation bit but, as carsick as she gets, I don't think that Stelvio Pass will be on the itinerary.

The Yard Ramp Guy Blog: Moving Your Yard Ramp

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy provides some astounding weight comparisons (and gives me newfound respect for the blue whale, from which I'll never ever wish to receive a tongue lashing), then transitions from heavy to smooth and shows how easy it is to move a yard ramp.

Buckle up, then click HERE to read all about it.