Monday, 19 April 2010

The Wright Brothers, Baedeker and the Beauty of Pylons

What, dear reader, do these two photographs have in common?

Give up? So soon? Ah well, dear reader, you were never one to make an effort, were you? They are both pictures of pylons, for strange and gradual reasons that I shall explain as gently as possible.

Once upon a time there was a Greek word pylon that meant gate. It was a dull Greek word that might have died in obscurity were it not for the fine classical education of Egyptologists. They took pylon and decided to use it for the gateways of Egyptian temples. They had already decided to call the entrance to Greek temples the propylaeum.

Egyptian temples tend to have the same kinds of gateways. You have two big towers on either side and then a cross-beam between them, as in the illustration that I have so solicitously provided.

Things might have stopped there were it not for bridges. In the late nineteenth century people liked to put towers at either end of a bridge: not for any practical purpose, you understand, just because they looked nice. Such pylons can be found on the Pont Alexandre III in Paris.

You see the towers at either end? You see how they could be considered like the towers of the Egyptian temples with a crossbeam between? It's tenuous. Almost the first reference that I can find to pylons in this sense comes from the 1901 Baedeker guide to Paris, which describes these very pylons and the statues that perched atop them. The same volume of Baedeker also refers to the obelisk in Paris, and to how it had been taken from the temple of Ramses II at Thebes where it had stood "in front of a 'pylon', or gateway".

From here, things become a trifle muddied. It is certain that in suspension bridges, which had been around for a century, these pylons were used to hold the cables that held the bridge. However, the OED is extraordinarily unhelpful on this front. I found an architectural dictionary of 1912 that said they were purely decorative. Nonetheless, observe the wonders of Bristol.

A pylon if ever I saw one

What is certain is that seven years after that Baedeker was written, on the far side of the Atlantic, in North Carolina (near Buncombe country about which I have blogged), the Wright brothers were trying to make their new-fangled airplanes take off. This was troublesome as planes have to gather speed terribly quickly. So they came up with a cunning plan. They built a metal frame tower. At the top of it they had a heavy weight attached by rope to a pulley and thence to the land-loving aircraft. When they dropped the weight the aircraft would be yanked forward giving it the speed required for take off. Here is a picture:

The tower was rather useful. It was light and easy to build and terribly importantly it marked where the runway was. Early aviators found this aspect so useful that they would have a line of pylons marking the approach to the runway. Then they got used as markers in airplane races. You would take off, head for a pylon, perform a pylon turn around it and return to the runway.

I can't work out whether the Wright Brothers were the first to call this a pylon, but it was in use by 1909 and here's a lovely illustration from a 1912 edition of Popular Mechanics:

So now you have lines of frame towers running across the countryside. And from there, dear reader, you get the modern sense, which pops up in 1923 in a novel by Edward Shanks, and by 1930 we finally arrive at the poetry:

Power-stations locked, deserted, since they drew the boiler fires
Pylons falling or subsiding, trailing dead high-tension wires;*

So wrote W.H. Auden and three years later Stephen Spender wrote a whole poem called simply "The Pylons". So fond were these thirties poets of Egyptian gateways that they were later known as the Pylon School of poetry.
Betjeman, who was not of the Pylon School, reacted thus:
Encase your legs in nylons
Bestride your hills with pylons
O age without a soul
For myself, I have always been rather fond of pylons. The discipline of structural necessity gives them elegance. They seem like great elegant giants striding single-file across the countryside. If Don Quixote were alive today, I am certain that he would charge them and not windmills.
It is a frailty of the aesthetic sense that people rarely appreciate beauty when it is necessary. The Roman aqueducts that tourists now gawp at would have been eyesores in their time. A hideous necessity cutting across the pastoral valleys. Windmills were once no more picturesque than windfarms, because they were necessary structures.
I was once being talked at by a terrible bore who was explaining how he had done up his horrid little house in the countryside. He had preserved at great expense some old contraption for grinding corn. I was not interested. I was gazing at the line of pylons that waddled magnificently from one horizon to the other. He noticed my inattention, noticed the pylons and said "Yes, they're horribly ugly, aren't they? Completely ruin the view. But anyway, the corn would have gone in here and then this handle...."
Which only goes to prove what I have always believed: beauty is utility plus a few hundred years.
The march of the giants
P.S. A pylon can also be an artificial limb, or a prologue.
*The opening chorus of The Dog Beneath the Skin

1 comment:

  1. What a fabulous post!!!!! And I'm not just saying that because I can't think of anything better.
    From Egyptian gateways to airplane races to high-tension lines - your wonderful ability to make associations leaves me open-mouthed and a more than a little regretful that I never had a teacher like you.
    I loved this - and yippee!!! I now have something to say to those Sunday morning Provencal walkers who complain about the 'lines of pylons waddling from one horizon to another'. I think they're lovely, too.