Welcome to the world we’ve made for ourselves!

Natural gas pumping station and storage tanks beneath the buttes of Red Rock State Park, near Gallup, New Mexico.

Infrastructure is a book about all the stuff that people have built on the landscape we live in—the machinery that supplies us with raw materials, food, water, and energy, and the networks of roads, rails, and communications lines that hold civilization together. This is a nature guide to everything that isn’t nature.

Some of the most interesting artifacts are things we pass on the street every day, although we seldom take notice of them, and we may not know exactly what they do, how they work, or why they have been designed in particular shapes and sizes.

Transformers on a utility pole; a fire hydrant; a cell-telephone antenna tower.
A farm tractor loads grain into a storage bin, Palmyra, Nebraska.

If you live out in the country, other kinds of sights may be more familiar.

In some areas, the rhythmic nodding and sighing of oil well pumps is a commonplace part of daily life. (In years to come, we'll be seeing more of these in regions outside the traditional Oil Patch.)

Sucker-rod well pump near Plainville, Kansas.
Grain driers and storage silos in Williams, California.

Beyond the ordinary furnishings of the built environment, there are grander fantasies of the technological imagination, such as this cathedral of agricultural production, complete with spires and flying buttresses.

Poke around in some corners of the industrial landscape, and you find exotic and rather mysterious apparatus lined up in a precise geometric array.

Circuit breakers in the switchyard of a nuclear power plant, Salem Creek, New Jersey.
A “trickling filter” at a sewage-treatment plant in Henderson, North Carolina.

There are glimpses of beauty in unlikely places . . .

The “Peachoid,” a, water storage tower in Gaffney, South Carolina.

. . . and moments of whimsy.

You look out your window on a cross-country flight and see crop circles everywhere: The checkerboard landscape of rural America has checkers on it!

Fields near the town of Earth, in West Texas, photographed from about 30,000 feet.

Back down on the ground, it’s not hard to figure out what makes the polka-dotted landscape: A huge sprinkler slowly twirls around the center of each field, creating a green circle.

Center-pivot irrigator near Plymouth, Washington.
Wind farm near Tracy, California.

Sometimes our constructions have a jolly aspect, as with these wind turbines looking like a line of mechanized cancan dancers.

Elsewhere the mood is darker.

A natural-gas storage tank looms over a neighborhood in Genoa, Italy.

Sometimes it’s the immense scale of the enterprise that makes an impression.

The Santa Rita copper mine near Silver City, New Mexico, from the air.

And sometimes it’s just a small detail that attracts the eye.

A roller bearing supports a wheel of a spanking-new railroad car.

Making Sense of It All

Industrial installations can be forbiddingly complex, but they are not beyond comprehension. Almost always, there’s a system to it: Stuff comes in one end, gets processed somehow, and goes out the other end. Infrastructure, the book, has a system too. It begins with raw materials and fuels that we dig or pump from the earth, and the food we grow. Then there are the networks of rails and roads, power lines and communications channels that lace us together. And, at the end, whatever is left goes back in the ground as waste, unless we can learn to make something new of it.

The ExxonMobil refinery at Chalmette, Louisiana, photographed from a ferry crossing the Mississippi.



The raw materials for building a civilization are things we dig out of the ground: fuels, ores, stone.


Every inhabited place—even a campsite—needs the means to collect, store, and distribute water.


Farming, our first and most essential industry, transforms the landscape like no other human activity.


Petroleum fuels modern life, but it has been with us only a little while, and it won’t last forever.


We squeeze the juice of electricity out of coal, gas, uranium, flowing water, wind, and sun.


Electricity is invisible stuff, but transmission lines, sub- stations, and utility poles stand out on the landscape.


America has been wired and rewired three times over since the nineteenth century. Now it’s going wireless.


The automobile has altered our landscape and our lifestyle more than any other technology of modern times.


Railroad technology was the centerpiece of the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution, and it still is.


Bridges and tunnels create a path where none existed, spanning space or burrowing through the solid earth.


Air transport breaks free of the earth, and yet airports occupy as much land as a fair-size city.


The freight container—a box the size of a truck trailer— has made shipping a game of stacking Lego bricks.


Dust to dust, ashes to ashes: The cycle closes as we return to the earth some of what we dug out.


The Infrastructure Quiz!

Question 1: Once upon a time, every freight train ended with a caboose. No more: A caboose at the end of a train is as rare as a steam locomotive at the front. What became of the caboose?

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Question 2: There’s something very unusual about this power line. What sets it apart from almost all the other high-voltage lines that lace the landscape—including the one that’s visible in the background near the left edge of the photo?

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Question 3: These funnel-shaped objects on the roof of a sawmill in Sacramento, California, are called cyclones. What do they do?

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Question 4: The tall structure in the foreground at the left, and its distant twin across the water at the right, are built directly over the tubes of the Holland Tunnel, which carries traffic under the Hudson River between Manhattan and Jersey City, New Jersey. What are the towers for?

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Extra credit: There are only two saguaro cactuses in this photograph. Which one is the impostor? What is it really?

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What’s New?

The first edition of Infrastructure came out in 2005. The industrial landscape has seen changes since then. The revised and updated edition of the book, published in October 2014, covers new developments and offers reassessments of some older technologies.

Experimental self-driving vehicles negotiate their way through an intersection.
(Photo by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.)

One distinctive novelty is the sudden appearance of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) in places where the tungsten-filament light bulb held sway for a century. Almost all new traffic signals use LEDs rather than a light bulb behind a colored glass lens. LEDs are also showing up in street lights, as well as light bulbs for home use.

Traffic signals based on LEDs rather than incandescant light bulbs. Evidently the technology is not quite perfect yet.
The rooftop of a data center in downtown Boston, covered with generators for backup power and cooling units.
(Photograph courtesy of the Markley Group.)

Surely the most remarkable technological story of the new century is the emergence of the Internet as the preeminent communications medium. Although the roots of the Internet go back almost 50 years, the physical infrastructure was almost invisible until recently. They can’t hide it anymore. Internet switching nodes and data centers are huge installations. Even if most of the machinery is hidden in windowless rooms, the buildings are identified by their abundance of backup generators and cooling units.

The word fracking was a new addition to the American vocabulary when the first edition of Infrastructure appeared. In the past 10 years this technique for recovering “tight oil” has changed the complexion of the petroleum industry, and changed some large swaths of the North American landscape.

A handful of “proppant,” a kind of synthetic sand that helps hold open cracks in rock layers deep underground, allowing oil and gas to flow into a fracked well.
Open-wire telephone circuits near Tonopah, Nevada, in 1999.

Updating the book involved not just searching out what’s new on the landscape but also noting what has disappeared. Long-distance phone calls were once carried on bare copper wires strung all across the country on wood poles with glass insulators. The ones shown above, in western Nevada, may have been among the last still in service.

About Brian Hayes

I’m a writer who has always been interested in science, mathematics, and technology. For more than 20 years I wrote and illustrated a column called “Computing Science” for American Scientist magazine; before that I was the editor of American Scientist and earlier still an editor on the staff of Scientific American. I also write a blog at, where you’ll find a list of my publications.

My fascination with the industrial landscape goes back to childhood. I began thinking about a book on the subject in the 1980s, and I began work in earnest in 1992, aided by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The next 15 years featured a series of long road trips with a car full of camera gear, making frequent stops for power plants, bridges, antenna towers, farm machinery, and other technological bric-a-brac. The book is my attempt to bring you along on those adventures.

I am always pleased to hear from readers. You can reach me by email at:

Is This Book for You?

A VORTAC: a directional radio beacon that aircraft use for cross-country navigation.

Have you ever looked out the window of a car or an airplane and wondered, “What is that thing, anyway?” Then yes, this is the book for you. No expertise required—just curiosity.

Facts and Figures

Size: 10 × 10 × 1 inches (25 × 25 × 2 cm)
Pages: 568
Photos: More than 750
Binding: Paperback
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Co.
Publication date: 27 October 2014
Price: $60 US
ISBN: 978-0-393-34983-2


From the reviews of the first edition

“One of the most magical books I’ve ever chanced upon . . . . Pick up Brian Hayes and the power lines and drains around you will soon reclaim their just share of beauty and significance.”

—Alain de Botton, The Observer

“When seen through the discriminating lens of author and photographer Brian Hayes, man-made objects appear as exquisite and natural as organic ones.”

—Elizabeth Svoboda, Wired

“In the original, highly readable Infrastructure. . . , Brian Hayes adapts the form of the field guide to ‘everything that isn’t nature’.”

—Anne Eisenberg, Scientific American

In 2006 Infrastructure was awarded the Sally Hacker Prize of the Society for the History of Technology.

Where to Buy It

Ask for it at your local bookstore.

Order it from Amazon.

Order it from Powell’s Books.

Find it at a library.


Web site created by Brian Hayes, based on the reveal.js framework. Fonts are Open Sans and Crimson Text, both from Google Fonts.

Except as noted, all photographs are by Brian Hayes. For permission to reproduce photos, please write to

The first edition of Infrastructure, published in 2005, is now out of print. The web site for that edition has not been updated in several years, but you can read it here.