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The Great Stink (wikipedia.org)
97 points by antonios on July 23, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 27 comments



Good "off the beaten path" visit for mechanical enthusiast visitors to London: Crossness Pumping Station, which would once have been an essential part of the solution to the Great Stink but is now a museum. They have a complete restored (but be sure to check schedules to visit when it's actually running) steam pump plus exhibits about how this works and they've restored the highly decorated Victorian building the pump is installed into.

Far more rarely open to visitors, but worth it if the stars align and you're into infrastructure: Its sister Abbey Mills is still a working sewage pump site, now run off much more modern and thus in some sense "boring" electrical pumps but still really fascinating if you're an infrastructure nerd.


Definitely agree with this, quite a remarkable place. Although highly decorated rather underplays expectation I think. It's more a Victorian cathedral of engineering. Crossness is of the era that was perhaps the height of Victorian confidence, and it showed in the attention to detail and aesthetic in something seen by so few.


Engineering drawings of that era where works of art - carefully coloured and shaded.


And I have always wondered, why? Why not just straight lines and pure utilitarianism? Granted, I love looking at that sort of thing, so I'm glad they made it as they did. But why?

Was it just a given that you would put art into anything you built?


The Victorian engineers took pride in engineering, it was an era when progress was been made month on month they applied sheer craftsmanship to a lot of what they did (in a similar way to the famous quote from Steve Jobs[1]).

[1] - “When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.” - Steve Jobs

If you go to the Manchester Museum of Science and Technology, they have cotton looms that have doric columns - there is no earthly reason for that (indeed today we'd use tubular or box section) other than the sheer joy of doing it.

It must have been a hell of a thing to have been alive from 1860 to 1930 (if we exclude all the negatives).


Why don't we settle for just straight lines and pure utilitarianism in our homes today and still insist on decorating them? We spend about as much awake time at work as home. Why did business stop caring about what was thought within the community, or by the workers?

Sure, some was projecting success, or the confidence of their age, but there seems to have been an expectation things would last. As an awful lot has. Half of many city's buildings are well past a century, little built post-war is likely to get that far.

It was an age where they were trying to leave things better - to their definition of better. Now it seems we're in an age of leaving things cheapened, not necessarily cheaper, but more profitable.

I'm not a fan of the current lowest cost beats all fashion.


If you like that I'd also recommend the Kempton Steam Museum. Especially when it's in steam.

It houses, if I remember correctly, the largest triple expansion steam engine in running order.


One alternative is that society has to oscillate around these kind of things. [x] The waste problem has to get so bad that people agree to do something. Then when it's fixed, future generations can start to question why their tax money has to go for something like this, since it's not a problem.

x: depends on the control theory dynamics of the system. It can also reach a stable state.


With climate change, we still have to get to the stage where the problem becomes so bad that most people agree to do something about it. The question is if it will still be possible to "fix it" at that point...


The problem with long delays in your feedback loops.


For problems like sewage the argument is often that _now_ we would have done something else in the past. A time machine argument.

For example in London they'll say we should have built a modern sewer system with separate household waste and storm sewers, then you can dump storm sewer overflow into the river without causing health problems or destroying the ecology of the river. Much better in the long run than the Combined Sewer system built by Bazalgette and still in use today.

But nothing like that was possible when the Great Stink happened. So you need to invent a time machine and go back to say, a century or two earlier and begin installing your separate sewer systems then, in time to catch the huge increase in waste from water closets that will eventually cause the Great Stink. Do you _have_ a time machine? No? Then your solution is invalid, don't bring it up.


In a way, though, we do have a time machines - called "imagination". It only "works" (for various values) going into the future. It does have its downfalls. When it does work, though, it can be kinda amazing.

A very good example of it working is that of the "Mother of All Demos":

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mother_of_All_Demos

...during which virtually almost all of the software solutions and systems, and some of the hardware - of the 1980s forward - was pulled back in time by 20 years - which is a long damn time when it comes to computing - comparable to "centuries" for more mundane things.

Granted - and here is one of the downfalls - many of the paradigms and examples from that demo "stuck" - and arguably all this time later has perhaps made us be in a "rut", versus other possibilities. Though a possibility, our systems are still arguably better and work well enough.

We could do this with more mundane (and arguably more pressing) things, if the political will of society were there. We could say "For problem X, what solution Y in the future might be best to mitigate this, and could we build solution Y today?" - and if the answer is "yes" then doing so.

A counter argument could be "What if problem X doesn't happen? Or worse, what if problems A, B or C occur, which solution Y won't address?"

Well - let's instead think of all potential sub-problems or potential problems of the same set as the singular; that is, if the problem is X, attempt to imagine the set which X is a part of, and attempt to imagine a potential solution or solutions to fix that set of problems. You may not get all of them, or you may have to break things up into subsets with individual solutions - but there's a good chance that you'll hit on the majority of them.

Now granted - one could just go up another level and say "what if none of those happen, or what if the solutions don't work?" - reducto-ad-absurdum the whole thing to death. Perhaps "paralysis by choices" (yeah, I know that's been disproven)?

The thing is, likely some or most of those things will help in some regard, depending on the problem. Done right, even if the problem doesn't appear, the solution(s) may help in other ways unforeseen, or they may have effects which interact with other things to create a solution to problems. Yes, they could make things worse.

The gamble is the tradeoff between doing nothing and hoping nothing happens, and imagining solutions and doing something to try to fix those problems. Especially considering for some problems, we have historical data to show that those problems are likely real, and aren't going away, and modelling the effects without doing anything vs doing something tends to fall on the side of "doing something" is better than "doing nothing".

It's one thing if the problem is brand new, with no historical data behind it to show what has happened, what is happening, and what potentially might happen. When that data does exist for a problem or problem(s) - doing nothing, and then blaming someone else when the problems in the future do become bad, is ultimately the wrong way to go about things.

But it does serve to keep one elected and popular (usually, provided the problem doesn't become severe while you are still alive and known for your past decisions or indecisions by the public).


Fun fact: London dumped its shit into the north sea until 1998, by boat.

"In the 1880s further fears over possible health concerns because of the outfalls led to the MBW purifying sewage at Crossness and Beckton, rather than dumping the untreated waste into the river,[90] and a series of six sludge boats were ordered to ship effluent into the North Sea for dumping. The first boat commissioned in 1887 was named the SS Bazalgette; the procedure remained in service until December 1998, when the dumping stopped and an incinerator was used to dispose of the waste."


I really hope the other five boats had more creative names. Cheeky names for things is a longstanding tradition in the sanitation industry (though I don't know if it dates all the way back to Victorian England).

SS Floater would have been a good one.


I really hope one was ShittyMcShitface[1].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boaty_McBoatface


Sludge is not the same as shit.


See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuyahoga_River

Another interesting note of history in the United states, specifically, the Cuyahoga river was so polluted that it caught fire at least a dozen times. The resulting damage was significant enough that it became a rallying point for the creation of the EPA in the 60s/70s.


Bazalgette is a great hero of civil engineering. The so-called interceptor sewers he designed are a model for pretty much all present-day sanitary sewers. His Crossness Pumping Station (powered by steam engines from James Watt's company) functioned for 90 years before it was replaced by newer equipment.

90 years, dear Hacker News colleagues. That's engineering. Is the stuff you and I did today going to last that long?


I drew an interesting parallel to this story with John Snow’s cholera well analysis: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/1854_Broad_Street_cholera_ou...

This is widely considered to be one of the first modern geospatial analayses to be conducted. It’s interesting how urban problems in London have led to advancement in various scientific fields.


Some of the streets in central London really stink up in the heat of summer. One's that come to mind are Moorgate, Barbian and some of Bank.

Fun times walking between Old Street and Farringdon...


I don't know in London but these days many local authorities collect trash only once a fortnight.

In summer, on residential streets where bins are kept next to the street the stench can be something...


The 'Stuff You Should Know' guys have a great podcast episode about this


So does the "Stuff you missed in History Class" podcast! Here is a link to the episode: https://www.missedinhistory.com/podcasts/the-great-stink-of-...


Aye. I heard this recently. It's really, really good!


The construciton of the london sewers is one of the episodes of the excellent BBC documentary series "The 7 wonders of the industrial world"[1] (Which also talks about Cholera and the Broad Street Pump).

Highly recommended viewing if you can find it.

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/seven_wonde...


I just finished reading «the butchering art» about Jospeh lister and revolution of medicinal science. They mentioned the great stink and how it related to the miasma theory. Great book, author was on Joe Rogan as well.


The Difference Engine [Gibson and Sterling] vividly describes a fictional - and probably worse - debacle based on this event.




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