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Getting Started In CAD


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Getting Started in CAD

Why Learn CAD anyway?   Is my computer good enough?   Drawing with the Computer   What Software to Buy?

Coming Soon - How to make Money with CAD


Click Here to download a free Car and Motor CAD file

Click on this image for a Free CAD Drawing

Introduction: Is it time to abandon the trusted paper and pencil? If I begin to depend on the computer to assist in my design work will I face all sorts of issues such as corrupted files and lost drawings? After all, a pencil drawing on paper can be stored in a file cabinet and will stay put. Paper is compact, it is cheaper by far than the cheapest computer, lasts for years, it can be dropped into a file drawer and accessed days or years later without an expensive terminal. I have all the knowledge I need about drawing already and will face having to buy "programs" costing hundreds and even thousands of dollars before creating even a simple sketch. I will face having to learn a whole lot of skills I do not now have. My work will be compared with lots of people who already have these skills. How is drawing with a computer accomplished? What is the best software to begin with, to stay with for the long haul? Should I learn the standard drawing programs like AutoCAD, Corel and Adobe? Can my current computer handle the special requirements of CAD?

These and other questions for the CAD student will be answered in the following article.


Why Start in CAD?: There are five reasons why people start using CAD:

1. File Sharing: Clients, equipment suppliers, contractors, lenders, regulators and others may have requested that drawings be sent to them over the Internet. Scanning hand drawn designs with a scanner for transmission has limitations.

Bitmaps resulting from scanners reduce the detail of drawings so that information may be lost. Pencil drawings and blue-prints are particularly hard to scan due to the large amount of background information that clutters up the final image and may require long sessions of editing before the image is clean enough to send. Also, the bitmap image, depending on resolution, may become a huge file that takes forever to send and receive and takes up too much storage space.

All good CAD programs have convenient file sharing utilities that will translate drawings into standard formats such as DWG and DXF and others that can be easily and conveniently sent and received on the net.

2. Design Efficiency: Designing in the real world often requires the use of repetitive images and standard drawings. These standard drawings may be yours or commercially available drawings such as available here. Believe me, the computer can store, manipulate and manage your graphics much better than a metal file cabinet. Also, as government regulations increase each year, officials often want only small changes to a series of complex drawings. The computer makes creating and changing drawings relatively simple with a series of standard drawings and mouse clicks rather than starting from scratch each time a new drawing is needed.

3. Organizing Work: At some point in your business, searching for a certain drawing or a special detail begins to take up time. Having ten years of drawings fit on one or two CDs has some advantages. Computerized drawings force the designer to constantly backup, organize and simplify the products of the design process. Believe it or not, the computer can help in the organization and storage of drawings, for both the compulsive saver and the impulsive artist.

4. Just Keeping Up: As time goes on, the computer, the Internet, the cell-phone force themselves on us and we give in. To keep fighting may help one's image as an independent thinker, but it will not help a bottom line. When tools such as CAD become industry standards, avoiding their use may isolate the holdout designer from others in the marketplace favoring the competition.

5. Improving Job Skills: Many schools offer classes in CAD. There is a vast range of teachers and programs available. Many are not very useful. A term of several weeks of study will not be enough to prepare you for a job, but you will get to experience what CAD drawing feels like. Many new graduates from qualified CAD schools are not useful in a tech position without a lot of practical experience. You will have to learn a lot in any CAD job that is not taught in any school. The diploma may just get you inside the door. Time spent at the computer, solving problems on your own develops the skills you will need quicker than classes in my opinion.

Drawing Basics: The most important difference between CAD drawings and other computer graphics is the way the drawing is saved and used. Computer images (non CAD images) are bitmaps. Bitmaps are a grid made up of thousands of dots. Bitmap images lend themselves to computers because the monitor screens and printers already talk the language of bitmaps, a map made up of tiny bits. The smallest bits on the screen you are viewing is 72 pixels (picture elements) per inch. There is no point in providing images on your website that has more than 72 pixels per inch because the screen will not be able to show the larger detail. When you encounter a slow loading photo on a website it probably is saved on the server to a higher resolution than 72 pixels per inch.

The CAD drawing, however, is like a pencil drawing made up of lots of lines. This is a vector image. Each line in the vector drawing is a mathematical curve. When you click the mouse to start and finish a line, the resulting line becomes a mathematical formula with a point of beginning, an end point, a thickness, a color, and a style (dashed, solid, dotted etc). CAD drawings being made up of vectors are saved as a list of mathematical formulas for each line based on a point of origin. Resolution or scale of the drawing or the details of each individual line or point can be changed without altering the other objects in the drawing. This is why this type of drawing is more useful than a bitmap.

Take a look at the drawing below. It is a jpg file downloaded from the eco-nomic server and is a bitmap file as are all images on internet WebPages. It is 72 dots per inch for optimum viewing on your computer screen.

this image of a car and motor can be downloaded free as a CAD file in various vector formats by clicking on the links below.

DXF of the DRAWING  (webmaster note: DXF and DWG files can be difficult to download on some computers - we recommend right clicking on the underlined links to the left and saving them first (choose "save target as. . .") before opening.) DXF is a universal drawing exchange format developed by AutoDesk for sending vector files. Fortunately this idea for drawing exchange has endured. Once you download and click to open this file, your drawing program should display the CAD drawing. Experiment with the drawing by turning on and off (see and hide) separate layers in the downloaded file. The exterior features of the car and the interior and motor are in different colors and on different layers. This is how CAD drawings can combine information for reference or extract certain views for printing, viewing or other reasons. The car for instance can be viewed and saved as the body only (red lines) without the motor and the hidden interior details (blue lines).   

DWG of the DRAWING in AutoCAD  The AutoCAD business model will not easily allow older copies of the software to open drawing files created in newer versions. That is, if I have AutoCAD 2008, and someone sends me a drawing created in AutoCAD 2010, I will not be able to open it easily. AutoDesk was obsolescing older versions of their program, thus encouraging their customers to upgrade even though the current software was running things without problems. They now provide a free external utility but claims that it would be too hard to constantly make newer drawings compatible with older versions. They may have a point. However Adobe has not claimed this restriction and have managed to make all PDF files mostly universally readable in all versions of their software. I believe AutoCAD deliberately exploits issues of "backward compatibility" to enhance their snob appeal to design firms sporting the latest version.

In practical terms, companies who exchange a lot of drawings are smart to share identical releases of the same CAD software. For now, the most reliable drawing exchange format is DXF.

PDF of the Drawing  Most computers can now open Adobe PDF files. This will give you the general appearance of a vector drawing especially when you zoom in. However Acrobat files by nature discourage editing and altering. PDF files are sort of half way between vector drawings and bitmaps. Your computer if it can read this image has downloaded a reader from Adobe that creates a "posterized proxy image" that can be scaled and printed like a vector image, but unlike a vector file, this format is generally not for editing.

GCD GENERIC CADD DRAWING File Just for fun, here is a GCD file of the car created in the program I used to use every day, Generic CAD. See if your software can recognize it.

More About Vectors: Vector drawings are used for mechanical drawing and design because the shapes of the objects being designed, being exact mathematical shapes, can be modified and duplicated with very few commands (keystrokes). Lets say you have a drawing of a tank and you want to stretch it out a little to make it longer. With a CAD drawing you can grab one end of the tank with the mouse and pull. The dimensions shown on the drawing will automatically change to reflect the new dimensions. Also, the area and volume of the new tank size can be instantly calculated. Try that with a bitmap. Also text in the drawing can be edited even if it runs over parts of the drawing. Also parts of the design can be grabbed, erased, flipped, changed and copied without disturbing or changing the basic drawing.

Designers always have favorite parts such as pumps, tanks and plumbing fittings that appear in all designs. The CAD operator can create standard parts called components or blocks which can be easily dropped into a drawing when needed with a few mouse clicks. This cut and paste feature is a great time saver and applies to such ordinary things as north arrows and title blocks as well as drawing parts and entire pages of details.

The Drawing Process: Drawing in CAD is not exactly like drawing with a pen or pencil. The mouse is used to drag a point across the screen where you click to finish a line. If this sounds awkward, it is. However, certain features make up for the awkwardness. You can, once the line is drawn, tweak and twist it to suit your needs. A line can be started by "snapping" it to connect to another point. Note the drawing above where smooth curves connect to straight lines without a bump. Car bodies are generally composed of compound curves and gentle arcs. Cad drawings create these complex forms from lowly straight lines, arcs and the occasional spiral.

In the same way that a word processor is, lets face it, a lot of ways, better than a typewriter, CAD programs also allow changes to already drawn objects. You may move, copy, bend, trim any line or set of lines in the drawing. Drawing tangents to circles, angles and geometric shapes of all kinds are done with a few clicks. CAD programs have special commands that shortcut operations. Multiple trims, rotary copy and move point are three examples of this type of command. Every good CAD program has dozens to hundreds of these shortcuts. The operator is free to make objects in the long way or discover a time saving command. I find cool shortcuts in even the oldest programs. Experience develops special short-cuts and tricks that will increase your speed. The CAD program understands geometry in ways that will impress you as a new user, guaranteed.

One word of caution: You will lose an important drawing more than once as you learn how to prepare and organize your work. This will happen under a stiff deadline, and your drawing will either disappear, become hopelessly corrupted, or revert to a few stray lines.

The CAD thing has never been a priority of Windows which is essentially a word processing and business operating system. CAD developers are aware of this and work around this constraint as best they can. You will wind up in conversation with a special club of nerds who are often at odds with the computer industry. You will probably demand special attention from your computer tech and sales people and hopefully you will get the help you need from time to time. I have been fortunate in my area to have found sympathetic support.

Layers: Drawings can be built up with several layers. Layers are like transparent sheets that build up to form the final drawing. Each layer can be changed, printed or edited without changing the other layers. The drawing can show the top and the interior of a pump chamber, the electrical wiring, survey lines, easements, the plumbing etc all on the same drawing. Certain layers can be turned on or off for printing or display depending where the emphasis is to be placed. Most CAD programs can handle several hundred layers.

Scale changes are simple to make: CAD drawings can be shown at any scale. When creating a septic design, the drainfield details can be created on the same drawing as the site plan. The final results can be cut out of the overall plan for separate sheets such as the site plan, the drainfield, the tank and pump chamber, etc. It is possible to zoom in to fill the screen with a single screw head from the control panel and zoom out to show the entire county that the system will be built in, all at an accuracy of six decimal places of an inch.

How Much Computer Do You Need? When I started in CAD about 1990, I think the hard drive had twenty MB (Megabytes) of space. After drawing each line, I had to wait for a second or two for the computer to recalculate the vectors in the drawing. The screen would blink off for a second. Drawings had to be saved on floppies to keep space on the drive to run the program. As the drawing grew, the computer ran slower and slower. Sometimes it ground to a halt and another sheet was required. After about 1993, computers began to catch up to the CAD programs following the invention of the math co-processors, modular ram and larger hard drives. Today, the playing of video games and movies on computer and the Internet have pushed computers beyond the needs of any small design firm's CAD program.

Any decent Internet computer will work for CAD. Windows XP is still a good operating system for most CAD computers. Newer operating systems keep getting mixed reviews as to their friendliness, but most problems are eventually fixed. If you are buying a new system, try to include an operating system with at least 9 months on the market. If you have an older computer, do the check below.  You may have to upgrade to the minimum required system. Most CAD operators avoid new operating systems. Buying a new computer will sometimes force you to visit compatibility limbo.

Graphics Card: CAD work, games and heavy graphic manipulation requires you to buy and plug into your computer as decent a graphics card as you can afford. The graphics or video card talks to your monitor to display the CAD information as you draw. Most non-CAD computer users do not need a graphics card for normal work. There are dozens of graphics cards out there. Be prepared to pay $200 or $300 minimum for a card, and buy one that is as new as you can find. Check online for a brand with good reviews from the gamers or from the CAD operators.

Processor: If you are doing 3D modeling and rendering, you will require more computer than the average user. You should shoot for Quad cores and a 64 bit operating system. CAD with 2D applications sometimes will not benefit from multi cores. Your CAD program must be designed with multi-core motherboards in mind, and some 2D programs are not, particularly older ones. Check the specifications of your program to make sure it will utilize the full potential of your computer. If these details are missing from the CAD program specifications, the program may not include running multi cores.  

Minimum Clock Speed: Older machines used to run at CPU CLOCK or CPU TYPE of 200 Hz or 533 Hz etc. This is the speed of your processor. Any computer bought in the last five years should have enough speed for running all CAD programs if it is healthy. Get at least 3 GHZ clock speed if you are buying a new system for CAD work.

Hard Drive Space: Most CAD programs need a few hundred MB of free space or more before loading the CAD program and this does not include the space required for the drawings themselves which could be as much as a 5 MB or much more per drawing. To check your free space, go to your desktop or Control Panel and double click on My Computer. Right click on C: drive and click on "Properties" on the bottom of the list. The pie diagram that opens shows your Free Space which is where you load and run your CAD program. Do not attempt to run CAD if you do not have at least 25% free space on the hard drive following the installation of the software. Hard drives are cheap. A business program may not experience the same kinds of weird problems as a CAD computer running out of resources. So, don't take the advice of someone without CAD experience even if they are a qualified nerd.

RAM: To check your RAM (random access memory,) at the bottom of your screen, Click Start, Settings, Control Panel, and double click on the System icon. The bottom line on the General tab will state your RAM in Megabytes or Gigabytes. You should have at least a Gig of RAM. Upgrading your Ram today is cheap but it must match your computer and your existing RAM. If your machine is a few years old, this may not be a simple upgrade. The software manufacturer will tell you the minimum required for your CAD program. Again. if you are rendering in 3D, you will invest in RAM and wind up with at least 3 or 4 GB minimum.

Choosing Software: There is an array of drawing programs out there. Although Corel and Adobe have a good ability to create and modify vector drawings, these are drawing programs, not CAD programs. You will become frustrated marching endlessly through the menu maze in a simple drawing assignment. The goal of the CAD program is to allow the operator to create precision plans in scale, often in large format drawings. These individual drawings will usually be plotted into drawing sets for the construction of structures. The bulk of drawing programs are used to create graphic images, usually bitmaps, for graphic presentation on screen or in print.

Most web artists and graphic designers would find the graphic possibilities of CAD software quite limited. However for a designer of structures, a precision hand drawing or CAD drawing has no substitute. In 3D modeling more expensive computers are a must.

What About AutoCAD and AutoCAD LT? I have the latest software available from AutoDesk Retail and never use it. AutoCAD is the standard low end of the building, mapping and manufacturing CAD industries. If you aspire to a job in this area, then spend the time and the four plus thousand dollars and learn all the details of the latest release. However, the capabilities of the program are too vast in my view to meet the simple needs of a small design office. The same applies to AutoCAD LT, where they have simply stripped down their flagship with roll-up windows and no cup holders.

For CAD drawing, I personally used to enjoy an old DOS based CAD program called Generic CAD which was bought up by AutoCAD in the mid 90's and put to death. There are still many loyal users out there. The beauty of this program was that all the drawing commands did not require the use of drop down menus. Simple two letter commands with the left hand on the keyboard controlled all drawing functions. The mouse in the other hand never left the drawing. This simple setup has never been embraced by the industry. Alas, the simple way is simply not enough. In most standard CAD programs, the rampant menus either clutter up the drawing screen when not needed or slam shut prematurely. Generic CAD was unable to function in Windows XP Professional.

So What Is Out There? There used to be several programs that would do a good job for $200 or so. My personal favorite, Generic CAD sadly has expired. Printers and plotters must talk to the CAD program. Staying loyal to orphaned programs however worthy, will eventually let you down. Visual CADD 6.0. for around $500 emulates many of the great features of Generic and even opens Generic GCD drawings. Although I yearn for something better, I use this software every day. There will probably never be a drawing software as intuitive and nimble as Generic, but Visual is close enough for now. To get started as cheaply as possible, I recommend three best value programs; TurboCAD, QCad and AlleyCAD as inexpensive starter CAD programs that can and will do real work for you if they have to.

Drawing exchange between computers and programs is happening more all the time, particularly over the internet. PDF's are simply the universal format for drawing exchange. Drawings in PDF format can be saved in scale for large format printing. Quality is only good enough for print quality and the PDF file can not transmit precision values, but most communication, particularly to clients or regulators for general discussion, these drawings are more than adequate. Your CAD program must be able to print to PDF.

The Learning Process: Go ahead and install the software on your machine. Then create a folder and a file for your work and constantly save to that folder and file. Once you start drawing, your files will grow and multiply. I recommend that you create a file system by year that uses short file names of no more than 8 characters. I start each file with the year and designate the jobs in sequential order followed by the sheet designation, aa ,ab ,ac ,etc: i.e. 03000aa. In this way, you can usually identify a stray drawing, or find a specific job by doing a search of your storage drive.

Next, Start Drawing: Learning CAD drawing takes about as much time as learning to drive a car. You will get places as you learn, but don't do rush hour.

The basic drawing is created first with dimensions and text added after. You will become frustrated while trying to do simple things. Changing line width or style, customizing drawing settings and choosing options from vast menus can take forever as you learn the system. The books that come with the programs seem to be mostly useless, except for the exercises in some. The help menus never seem to have specific answers. You are guaranteed to have crashes, blue screens, black screens, lost files etc. I once created two identical files connected with a line. Technical support for AutoCAD asked me to send it to them for their private collection. It could not be opened and that day spent drawing was lost.

It helps to have a specific job to do in CAD, a floor plan for a house to build, a pattern for a fabricator to cut, or some other "real" project. Attempting to learn CAD on your own, simply to enhance your attractiveness to a potential employer is unlikely to bear fruit. Remember, if you are job hunting, you will be competing with experienced operators with books of work samples. Your objective should be the same as someone learning a new language. You must become conversational. Be prepared to create a dozen drawings. By that time you will be proud of your work, and a potential employer, or client will see value in the results.

If you are stuck for a project to start with, reconstruct the floor plan for your own apartment or house. Get out your tape measure and a note pad and pencil, and measure everything about your space including the toilet, sinks and furniture. Now get on the computer and produce a scale drawing of everything. Note wall widths and drawing details such as door swing arcs and railings. This will require the knowledge of trimming lines to exact length, parallel lines, scale, arcs, and other basic operations. Name and save every drawing to your hard drive.

Just play around and see what you can do. Use the help menu as you go. If you become stuck, find a friend who is literate in CAD. Cook them dinner and ask for support. Community college classes will probably only teach AutoCAD and are likely to be of limited help in your work. Dinking on your own and one-on-one help are the quickest ways to learning the language.

I make available here a CAD drawing as an example. Click here to get an example of a typical CAD septic design drawing. The drawing shows how to specify "L Shaped" drainfield layouts. This drawing is an example of the septic designs for sale on this site in both the PDF and DXF fully editable CAD drawing exchange format.

How to Print Your Work In Scale: When you print your drawing, slap a ruler on it to make sure your printer is giving you the right scale. Trial and error is the best way to resolve errors of scale. Each software will have a slightly different approach to the scale problem. If your scale is 1/4 inch = 1 foot, a ten foot wall should be 2 and a half inches on the print. If this turns out not to be the size, then the scale is something different than you thought, and you must adjust the print scale, the paper size, or the drawing scale. The scale of your print must correspond exactly with the stated drawing scale. This is where you may wind up spending your time. Resist the temptation to change the scale of the drawing. Instead, adjust the size of the border to control the printing scale. You may need to chose a different scale entirely to fit everything on the page. Once you start printing, all this will make sense if it doesn't now. And with computers, once you get it right, it usually stays for good. Start a note book to jot down tips and operations as you go.

Understanding Scale: Working in Generic, or any of the open scale software, keep your note book handy to jot down scales for different sizes of paper (letter size, 11 x 17, 2ft x 3 ft, etc). In your book, include standard blocks, type styles, macros and other bits and pieces of info helpful to the drawing experience. In Visual CAD, you can start drawing in real scale without setting any parameters. Start a line and define the length from a millimeter to half way to the moon. "Zoom All" and the drawing fills the screen, no mater how small or large your project. AutoCAD on the other hand demands a finished paper size before starting the drawing. Repeated adjustments are required as you draw to fit everything in. Starting in AutoCAD is hard, but printing is easy. In Visual, the opposite can be true. I must throw a border around my drawing and arrange the layout before printing to get the exact scale.

I keep a drawing containing all of my dozens of possible borders in any scale, including title blocks and my company logo. I can load this drawing along side of a drawing I have just created and choose a border of a size to fit my drawing. This border already has the correct printing scale for the various printers I may choose. I then throw all the others away and hit the print button. Easy. Again, this may all sound like gobble-de-gook, until you get into the drawing process.

Don't give up. Push through the learning curve and experience the pleasure of creating clean accurate beautiful drawings for your business or pleasure.

� 2001-2011 John Glassco

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And The City Just Walked Away

The First Step Towards a Walking City

 Kicking City - design by author as tribute to Ron Herron    Return To Top

 Design for a Kicking City by the author as a tribute to architect Ron Herron who died in 1994


USS Abraham Lincoln in port in Everett, WAThe world�s biggest vehicle is a moving city. The Nimitz-class nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln commissioned in 1989 is a quarter of a mile in length and has a population of six thousand sailors. The image to the left shows the Abraham Lincoln berthed in her homeport of Everett, Washington. It was from this deck that President Bush addressed the nation following major battle operations in the Gulf. The world�s largest civilian cruise ship, Voyager of the Seas was launched in Finland in 1999 and carries five-thousand passengers and crew. She is equipped with a 1,350 seat theater, an ice rink, her own radio station and a wedding chapel. Work is underway to construct Freedom Ship which will be five times the length of these monsters and have a total population of fifty thousand.

Moving cities are already cruising the world�s oceans. A land-based moving city offers the same advantage of mobility and freedom as does an ocean liner to the population living inside. The "It is within our technology to build a walking city" Ron Herron 1964 - this famous drawing is the side elevation of the first walking city designfirst design for a walking city was proposed in 1964 by British architect Ron Herron. Before rejecting this radical concept as an idle brain wave, imagine the advantages of such a scheme. Moving cities would roam free in a natural landscape, following the seasons. Mechanical efficiency would allow the city to be self sufficient in energy with a small surplus going to enrich the population. There would be no long term dependence on fossil fuel, but direct use of the chemical, biological and thermal energy that flows continually through the environment.


But will such a strange proposal ever be built? First, mobility has always been an attractive idea just by itself. Long before the era of the motor home, people moved around for jobs, commerce, and seasonal comfort or just for the joy of being in motion. From the horse to the rocket, vehicular travel has always been a big part of American culture. A natural extension of this concept is to move the city itself. However, since we abandoned our nomadic ancestry centuries ago, our cities have been rooted to the earth.


The history of the city is eternally linked in the history of agriculture. The history of farming for the last few generations has developed from a series of hand operations to an industrial type of practice with an ever-increasing dependence on technology. Over the last two-hundred years, this technology has transformed our way of life.  

 Steam Threshing equipment and crew - Prague, Nebraska 1912

Nothing had more impact on my mother than the Great Depression. As a young girl growing up on a farm, her strongest memory was the wheat harvest. She and my grandmother would cook for twenty-five threshers. The crop was processed from rows of cut wheat into bags of grain. This necessary task was done with a coal fired �portable� steam engine and a threshing machine, both of which were pulled onto the farm with teams of horses. The image to the left of a threshing crew with their portable steam engine and threshing machine was taken in 1912 in Prague Nebraska by Frank Houfek. This equipment was last used in the harvest of 1947.


The steam engine and the threshing machine were eventually �combined� into a new machine called simply enough the combine. The portable steam engine was gradually improved to become the gas engine that in time powered the family car.


The first steam engine was built by an Arab inventor called Hero in Egypt 150 years BC. The next steam engine was by Leonardo da Vinci, who drew his design in the year 1500 in Italy.  The first steam engine patent was granted in 1679 in England to Thomas Savery. In 1712, the first attempt at a working steam engine was built to pump out water from a coal mine by Thomas Newcomen with a cylinder based on the bore of a bronze cannon. Again in England, James Watt in 1769 patented the steam condenser, the first design leap that made steam power practical for doing real work. As a result every light bulb today displays his name.

 worlds first car - 1771 French Cugnot

Now that practical steam engines had been invented, it would not be long before someone attempted to design a car. The first car ever seen was built in France two years later. Nicolas Cugnot drove this timber framed, steam powered monster into a stone wall in 1771 on its first demonstration drive. The car was dismantled and was never driven again.


In spite of a top speed of two-an-a-half miles per hour, the reason that Cugnot�s car was a failure on the road was the lack of good steering gear. In fact the steam engine that ran the threshing machine on my mother�s farm in 1932 was pulled by horses, a hundred-and-sixty years after the first car was invented. Apparently steering and driveline problems were not simple things to solve. Ironically, it took years of trial and error to come up with a design of a steam engine, frame and steering gear that �worked.� The proper arrangement seems obvious to us now, but during the development of the car,1887 horse-drawn steam powered fire engine - the engine does not drive the wheels it was never clear to everyone that the idea would be practical at all. All sorts of steam engines like this Charlotte, NC fire "engine" were pulled by a team of horses. The engine did not turn the wheels. The design of both the city and the car evolved together. Good and bad ideas were tried. The good ones stayed and the bad ones were dropped.


When it finally arrived, nothing has had a more extreme effect on the design on the city than the passenger car. The streetcar and the elevator allowed the building of the first modern cities as we know them with compact high-rise downtowns and vast suburban neighborhoods with tightly packed blocks of shoulder-to-shoulder houses. Lots were 25 feet wide with the streetcar stopping within a few blocks of home. By the 1970s, streetcars had been replaced by the family car. The number of people in each house had dropped from over six to an average of less than three. The average lot width had jumped from twenty-five feet to over seventy-five, to accommodate parking for at least one car. Spreading out from all cities was a carpet of suburban homes mile after mile.


Lots of people saw the steady growth of the city and the suburbs as a glorious opportunity for everyone to have decent housing and access to work. But, some city planners saw clouds on the horizon. Over the years, the rapid growth of the city has brought chronic problems. As the city grows from the outside, the oldest parts in the center are cramped and out of date, in spite of being constantly rebuilt. Traffic becomes a daily burdensome trek, wasting time, energy and patience as each new suburb brings longer commutes. The clean, open fields that everyone seeks as they move out of the city soon become clogged with roads and traffic as the growth wave sweeps past to greener pastures further out. Any remaining open space is eaten up with malls and parking lots.


Drawing of a quadruped Walking City shown walking through a wilderness area.The quiet simple life is somehow always out of reach. The city grows like a weed, consuming open space like a drug. The passenger car has allowed this rapid growth, without bringing a solution to this problem.


In the sixties and seventies, several thinkers recognizing the gathering troubles, came up with possible solutions. Like the gradual development of the car itself, the planning of the city has evolved slowly with little genuine change since the invention of the concrete freeway early in the last century. One universal theme in the city planning of the last century is a gathering recognition of the destructive power of the passenger car and its accompanying suburban sprawl.


In 1947, a conservative five fingered plan was inspired by Britain�s Sir Patrick Abercrombie to draw the growth of Copenhagen away from the core. In 1956, America�s best known architect Frank Lloyd Wright proposed a Mile High Illinois, a 450 story skyscraper to replace the city of Chicago. Urban sprawl is the underlying problem to be solved. America also has a new type of city growing seventy miles from Phoenix called Arcosanti. This city is designed by Paolo Soleri, a former student of Wright. This is a city without suburbs where no-one lives on the ground. This city is trying to become a single building.


Many people who see Ron Herron�s walking city design think it shocking. Many have trouble imagining a world of walking cities. However, in the crowd of curious bystanders surrounding the wreck of Cugnot�s first car how many could have imagined a Wal-Mart parking lot of today. And one thing is certain. If we all lived in walking cities and these cities roamed free across this great land, no matter how wild the ride, we would see less destruction of our world than we suffer today with mile after mile of asphalt pavement flowing out from the core like slag from a meltdown. Whatever answer is around the corner for the next class of thriving cities, it will likely be as unexpected as the steam powered car must have been to the Parisians of 1771.


article by John Glassco - from Venue Magazine August 2004


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Top Ten Environmental Hits of our Century

Anyone who has been in a fight knows the primary definition of a hit. A hit song is wildly popular and sells millions of copies. An environmental hit is an idea or event that causes profound and permanent change in our world. We have made it to the end of this final century of our second millennium. Here are my choices for the top ten hits of the last hundred years.

Ships, trains, Planes and automobiles carry our food, our supplies and our loved ones everywhere every day.

Oil wells reach down five and more miles, even under the sea to get the precious fuel. Millions of tons of exhaust is sprayed into the air every day containing sulfuric acid and other oxides of sulfur, carbon monoxide, other photochemical oxidants, nitrogen oxides and dioxins to name only a few.

I was shocked to learn that nine tenths of a bowl of cereal is made with diesel fuel. Fuel is needed for the tractor and the combine passing over the land from harvest to harvest, and for the trucks and trains that deliver the product to our neighborhood store. Machines that harvest the wood to make the box and the trucks that ship the ink that prints out the name on the package depend again and again on the snap, crackle and pop of the internal combustion engine.

Here in central Washington we don't have much air pollution from cars, but we live with their leaking underground fuel tanks. These tanks have been fueling thousands of internal combustion engines here for much of the last century.

Over eighty percent of the registered hazardous sites in this area involve spilled petroleum products. In any large city or intensive farming area, leaking underground fuel tanks are a huge environmental problem. Gas fumes from leaking tanks can fill basements of houses hundreds of feet away from the source. Water wells can be easily contaminated. The idea that many of these compounds naturally disperse and disappear is not supported with any scientific study that I know of.

In the last century, people would walk to work. Now because of cheap internal combustion engines, we all drive. However, we must find room near our homes to park. Average lot widths in America have grown from twenty four feet during street car days, to sixty eight feet today. All this extra space is to accommodate the private car. Electric street cars used to be the prime people mover. Public urban transport is now only economically marginal.

This expansion has eaten up vast areas of land. Not included in this area is the additional land required for freeways and parking lots at our places of work, play and shopping.

The generals rejected the idea that planes could ever be used to spy on enemy movements. They thought that the ground would be a blur due to the speed of the flight. In spite such stupidity, the fighter plane, the tank and the aircraft carrier were born at this time. Never before had competition for the upper hand in war caused such a rush of invention. The power of industrial manufacturing had come of age. People were migrating to cities from all directions.

The universities produced standardized species of pest resistant, hardy grains. Chemical fertilizers appeared. Suddenly the country could feed itself and a new world export market appeared. The number of farmers began to fall from more than half of the national population at the beginning of the century to a small fraction by the end. This was only possible with the increasingly powerful machines of agriculture.

The cities swelled in size between the wars. Most of the land that could be farmed had been cleared, broken and planted.

During the 1930's some curious chemists discovered a wonderful thing. When common organic compounds were combined with the chlorine atom under special conditions of pressure and temperature, hundreds of new compounds were formed.

You will recognize many of these compounds: chlorofluorocarbons (CFC's) including dichlorodifluoromethane (freon) plus hundreds of industrial solvents, volatile paints, plastic foams, aerosol sprays, chlordane Insecticide, DDT, chlorinated biphenyl compounds (PCB's), halon compounds used in soil fumigants and fire extinguishers, carbon tetrachloride, etc., etc. . .

Many of the chlorinated compounds radically changed our lives for the better and are in safe use today.

However some of these compounds were found later to be highly poisonous and persistent in the environment. Local cities of Warden, Quincy and Moses Lake are and will be spending millions of dollars to protect their water wells from leaking chlorinated compounds associated with agricultural and industrial development.

Never in history had the rate of technological change happened so fast. The jet engine, the rocket, radar etc. enlarged our power to seek and destroy the enemy. In our haste we often neglected to take out the trash.

The US is the most powerful military power ever. However the cleanup from WWII is a legacy of that great conquest. The cleanup is only beginning.

Trichloroethylene (TCE), is another chlorinated compound used in aircraft maintenance across the country. TCE has been found in water wells miles from the site of disposal. Contrary to popular myth, natural bacteria in the ground does not cure this problem.

7. THE "A" BOMB:
There is little doubt that our enemies would have used the bomb against us first if they could have. Fortunately we beat them to the punch with this number one hit.

The rush to develop the bomb was a messy business. The pollution caused by bomb development in Russia is many times worse than that created here.

Unfortunately much of the United States' problem is still here in central Washington. Hanford contains over six hundred "locations" where waste is or was leaking. The best estimate from the US Department of Energy is that four hundred and forty four billion gallons of unknown liquid radioactive waste has been dumped into unlined pits at Hanford since the war. In agricultural terms, this is over one hundred eighty two thousand acre feet of water contaminated with radioactive substances.  back to introduction

"The pill" gets to take the hit for a range of inventions and social customs that have changed the way we live. Perhaps it was really TV, or the economy or something else that started to split the family. However, people in the USA live at slightly more than two to a house. At the turn of the last century, the number was about six people per house often including three or four generations.

The environmental results are that we live more and more spread out. Every time a family splits, another house is needed. The new house is usually miles away. This generates hundreds of trips a year to re connect the family members.

The communication satellite brings us back together by inexpensive phone calls and computer links. Also we have a large scale view of the planet with weather satellites. Our world is beginning to resemble that "global village" that we heard of a few years ago. Whether its monitoring the temperature of the Indian Ocean or mass graves in Bosnia, our view of the earth will never be the same.

This is a new term that has come from somewhere between the earth movement and the university. There is not yet a specific definition, but the idea is simple. The soil cannot be forever fed with fossil fuel based chemicals to correct one problem after another. This is not only expensive, but this approach negatively effects the quality of the food in the minds of many consumers.

By using integrated pest management methods, crop rotation, plus the careful attention to soil fungi, bacteria and chemistry, our dependence on petroleum based chemicals can be drastically reduced. This creates a more natural condition of integration between our needs for Ag products and the land.


Some environmental extremists may claim that some of these hits may have cost us more than they were ever worth. I disagree. Basically we get what we pay for, both financially and environmentally.

The earth is going to survive no mater what we do. Our survival will depend on how well we can develop sustainable methods to provide for our vital needs. We got to this point by extracting everything we need from the earth. we are beginning to face depletion of once endless supplies of fish and timber. Some day in the future we will run out of easily obtainable mineral resources. The only place to get raw materials will then be by growing them.

People disagree as to when we should begin to worry about running out of things. Some say we won't have to worry about raw material shortages in our lifetimes. Others say it is already too late to save large parts of our natural world such as our climax continental forests.

However if the next century has as many hits in store for us as the last one, we would be smart to get ahead of the curve. We could start by planning a sustainable future for all segments of our urban and agricultural environment.

by John Glassco of ECO-NOMIC - reprinted from the Grant County Journal

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