One Engineer's Crazy Plan to Drain the Mediterranean

Ittiz at en.wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0
Ittiz at en.wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

In the 1930s, German architect and engineer Herman Sörgel hatched an ambitious plan that he believed could unify post-World War I Europe: partially drain the Mediterranean Sea and create a new super-continent called "Atlantropa."

First outlined in a 1929 book, Sörgel's "Atlantropa Project" planned to lower the Mediterranean's water level by as much as 650 feet, generating hydroelectricity and creating thousands of square miles of arable coastline. The project demanded some of the most ambitious dams ever constructed, including a 21-mile dam at the Strait of Gibraltar that would create 50,000 megawatts of electricity—conservatively, enough power to supply least 8.2 million homes. Overall, the drop in water would free up nearly 373,000 square miles of coastal land for farming or colonization. (For comparison, the entire country of France is just over 248,000 square miles!) In the process, Europe and Africa would be linked.

Despite the project's grand scale, Sörgel believed creating a new super-continent would be relatively easy. The plan was modeled after smaller engineering projects that were already in the works. In the 1920s, the Netherlands had begun erecting dams and dikes in and around the North Sea, a project that eventually helped the country reclaim thousands of acres of land once covered by the Zuiderzee bay. Some of that new land would become the province of Flevoland, now home to 400,000 people.

Damming the Mediterranean seemed easy by comparison. Water enters the sea from two major arteries, with the Atlantic pouring in from the Strait of Gibraltar in the west and the Black Sea rushing in from the Dardanelles in the east. By pinching the flow at those two straits, the Mediterranean would plummet almost immediately.

A pacifist and dreamer, Sörgel believed the project could help Europe recover from its post-World War I economic woes, bringing the continent's countries together to share resources and vital infrastructure. Writing at Atlas Obscura, Toon Lambrechts says, "Because of its scale, Atlantropa required cooperation between countries, creating an interdependence that would rule out future armed conflicts."

The Atlantropa Project, however, had a few big blind spots. Over at the Big Think, Frank Jacobs argues that Sörgel's plan was too Eurocentric, with this new "Euro-African continent entirely run by and for the benefit of Europe(eans), [and] Africa(ns) being reduced to supplying raw materials." Indeed, Sörgel didn't appear to think very hard about how Africans might be affected by his project—along with draining the Mediterranean, he also planned to flood the Congo Basin and submerge most of the country of Chad. According to Cabinet Magazine, Sörgel saw "Africa as an empty continent void of history and culture." (The engineer went so far as to say that Atlantropa would make Africa a "territory actually useful to Europe"—a remarkably tone-deaf thing to say considering Europe's colonial role on the continent at the time.)

While Sörgel's idea received a lot of press during his lifetime, the leaders of the Weimar Republic did little to make the blueprints for Atlantropa a reality. And when the Nazi party came to power, it dismissed Sörgel's ideas altogether. Sörgel would fight for his vision until his death in 1952. Eight years later, the Atlantropa Institute—an organization dedicated to keeping his dream alive—dried up.

What People In the '50s and '60s Thought Houses Would Look Like in 1986

The Monsanto House of the Future was an attraction at Disneyland's Tomorrowland 1957 to 1967.
The Monsanto House of the Future was an attraction at Disneyland's Tomorrowland 1957 to 1967.
Photo courtesy Orange County Archives/Wikimedia Commons

In 1957, Monsanto demonstrated its vision for future housing, emphasizing one word: plastics. Its House of the Future was displayed at Disneyland from 1957 through 1967, and it envisioned a future home from the then-distant future of 1986. The house featured lavish conveniences including a microwave oven, ultrasonic dishwasher (for plastic dishes, of course), "cold zones" to replace refrigerators and freezers (with a special zone for irradiated foods), and dimmable ceiling lights—and that's just the kitchen.

While the House of the Future was a little silly around its plastic edges, a lot of its vision was actually correct. We do indeed use microwaves, we have lots of plasticware and even plastic furniture (hello IKEA), and Monsanto's vision of easy cleanup flooring is very realistic (though plastic may not be the most common material, Monsanto's heart was in the right place). Some details like electric toothbrushes and intercom/security systems ring true. The exterior architecture of the house was slightly Jetsons, but frankly, I've seen condos with very similar design cues. The Danish Modern living room looks thoroughly modern-retro to me (although it lacks art on the walls). Check out these videos and see what 1957 thought 1986 would look like. How'd they do?

One big mistake in its vision that stands out to me is the use of height adjustment on virtually everything (right down the children's sink)—everything in the house uses tracks to hide when not in use. While we have a little of that today, it isn't exactly pervasive; it just looks cool in a demo. The other major difference is Monsanto's attempt to sell plastic as a classy material for everything. On the whole, people of the future (meaning us) don't see plastic as classy, and indeed have gone retro on what we think denotes quality—we're looking for steel, wood, and even materials like cork that had no place in the House of the Future. On the flip side, we seem just fine with buying plastic stuff (even pretty stylish plastic) if it's a bargain (again, IKEA and even Target come to mind here).

In a little side-trivia, the House of the Future was very hard to demolish. Apparently a wrecking ball bounced right off the shell (plastics!) so the house had to be ripped to pieces with saws, taking weeks. 

Susan B. Anthony’s Childhood Home in Upstate New York Is Getting a $700,000 Renovation

George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication
George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

In 1833, a 13-year-old Susan B. Anthony moved with her family to a two-story brick house in Battenville, New York, where her father managed a cotton mill. Though Anthony only lived there a few years before financial troubles caused her family to relocate once again, it was in that house that she first became aware of the deplorable state of women’s rights—setting her on a path to change the course of history.

According to The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Anthony’s father started homeschooling her after a local teacher refused to teach Anthony long division on the grounds that women didn’t need the skill. Then, a temporary stint at her father’s mill revealed that the wages of many female employees went directly to their husbands or fathers, and Anthony learned about the gender pay gap firsthand when she was hired as a schoolteacher for a much lower salary than her male predecessor.

Right now, there are only two small indicators of Anthony’s history in the Battenville house—a placard on a nearby stone retaining wall and a sign on a post in the front yard—and the house itself is riddled with black mold and moisture damage.

But that’ll change soon: House Beautiful reports that New York’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which purchased the foreclosed property for just $1 back in 2006, is now planning a $700,000 renovation that includes general repairs, drainage improvements, and mold abatement. A considerable portion of those funds was collected by Senator Betty Little and Assembly member Carrie Woerner.

Whether the house will eventually become a museum remains to be seen. It’s located on a perilous curve on Route 29, and there’s very limited surrounding land or space for parking. Having said that, locals are committed to finding a worthy purpose for it after the restoration is complete. Debi Craig, former president of the Washington County Historical Society, told the Times Union that she thinks there’s potential for an international research center or library on women’s rights.

Regardless of what the Battenville house’s second life ends up looking like, the focus on this particular historic site is perfectly timed—not only does 2020 mark the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, it’s also Susan B. Anthony’s 200th birthday.

Learn more about the trailblazing suffragette here.

[h/t House Beautiful]

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