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Chambless, Edgar

Entry updated 25 January 2021. Tagged: Author.

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(1870-1936) US visionary and author whose Utopia, Roadtown (1910), promulgates a radically modernizing concept for the City as a literal embodiment of the centrality of Transportation: "a line of city ... projected through the country ... in the form of a continuous house. In the basement ... are to be placed means of transporting passengers, freights, parcels and all utilities...." This concept of a house-wide Linear City capable of spanning America in a continuous line from New York to San Francisco had, even before book publication, engaged the support of Thomas A Edison, who donated his patents for moulded-cement housing to the project, and that of William H Boyes, an apparent colleague of Edison, who donated his monorail patent; Roadtown itself was vigorously publicized by Milo Hastings, whose later sf novel, The City of Endless Night (1920), presents, intriguingly, a very much darker vision of the modernizing imperative. Chambless continued to advocate his scheme, in San Francisco and New York, for many years, without practical success. The inherent drama of his notion – a city which is also a road – did however strongly impress Upton Sinclair, and almost certainly provided, perhaps via Sinclair, some background stimulus for Robert A Heinlein's "The Roads Must Roll" (June 1940 Astounding), whose original title, "Road-Town", was changed before publication by John W Campbell Jr. At the end of his life, Chambless actively promoted the 1931 version of Roadtown with government officials in Washington, and drafted Roadtown designs for the 1939 New York World's Fair, without any response to either initiative; it may be that his suicide was caused by this clear message that his life project was never to flourish.

It is not clear that Chambless ever took on board some of the Dystopian implications inherent in a linear city so strictly organized. The Continuous Monument, a city of the mind visualized by the Superstudio group in 1969, clearly Satirizes the bent of mind capable of seriously conceiving such an idea fit for humans. But its clear descendant in 2021, the 100-mile concept of a linear city unveiled by Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Arabia, which is portrayed as bisecting the country, is seemingly not a joke. [JC]

Edgar Stephen Chambless

born Tuskegee, Alabama: 11 December 1870

died New York: 2 June 1936

works

  • Roadtown (New York: Roadtown Press, 1910) [nonfiction: introduction by Julian Hawthorne: hb/uncredited]

about the author

  • Carl Abbott. Imagining Urban Futures: Cities in Science Fiction and What We Might Learn from Them (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2016) [nonfiction: Chambless and Roadtown are mentioned (page 24) in a paragraph about Heinlein, but missing the connections instanced above, and with author's name wrongly spelled "Chambliss": neither bibliography nor index lists him under either spelling: hb/Shutterstock]

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