Monthly Archives: September 2015

Oh Bollards!

It’s June 30, 2007. You are standing outside the doors to the terminal at Glasgow International Airport. It’s 3:11 in the afternoon. It’s raining, a little bit. The ground is wet as cars drive past.

Then, all of a sudden, a dark green Jeep Grand Cherokee approaches. It’s going too fast. It shouldn’t be going that fast. There are two men inside. It’s headed straight at you, straight at the terminal. There are so many people inside.

You hold your ground. That’s your job, actually. You dig in as the jeep approaches at 30 miles per hour. It’s not gonna stop.

It’s not getting past you though. It hits you, stops immediately, and it’s on fire. The smell of gasoline is everywhere. The driver gets out. He’s on fire too, and starts walking toward the terminal. Someone inside puts him out but makes sure he stays down. Doctors will do everything they can to save him but he’ll die of his burns a few days later.

The passenger gets out and someone — a hero — tackles him to the ground. He’ll serve at least 32 years of a life sentence for his part in this. You’re a hero too. You stopped that jeep with its cans of gas and cylinders of propane from entering the terminal. But you won’t get the Queen’s Gallantry Medal or the Commendation of Bravery, like those other people. But you’re not a person, are you?

You are a post in the ground, in front of the door. Your job is to keep the bad guys in speeding cars and trucks out.

You, are a bollard.

This is Matt Croydon and you are listening to The Tinycast.

The first things to be called bollards were posts on ships and wharves where they docked. Some of the earliest surviving references in literature describe their use on whaling vessels. Like this passage from The Arctic Regions and the Northern Whale-fishery from 1849, originally published in 1820:

“To retard, therefore, as much as possible, the flight of the whale, and to secure the lines, it is usual for the harpooner to cast one, two, or more turns of the line round a kind of post, called a bollard, which is fixed within ten or twelve inches of the stern of the boat for the purpose. Such is the friction of the line, when running round the bollard, that it frequently envelops the harpooner in smoke; and if the wood were not repeatedly wetted, would probably set fire to the boat.”

On land, bollards were sometimes repurposed cannon, their barrels buried in the ground. In the early 18th century they began to be used in cities for traffic management and to protect buildings against damage from carriages.

Today, bollards are everywhere, and they take many forms. You might see them on a construction site: skinny orange plastic posts on a rubber base or the bigger kind that almost look like a barrel. They can separate bike lanes from traffic. You might see a single bollard in the middle of a bike path making sure that bikes can pass but cars can’t. Sometimes they provide lighting along a foot path or are lit with signage. You might see them in parking lots, protecting things from wayward bumpers.

One of my favorite things that bollards do well is play a critical role in something called site security. Site security is basically keeping a building or campus safe from threats. It’s also about reducing the risk of terrorist attacks by car or truck.

It’s time for a little site security 101.

One way to think of site security is to break things up in to six zones from the outside in. Think of it like a castle with a moat, a wall, and a fortified keep in the middle.

Zone 1 is the neighborhood outside. You usually can’t control things here but you can work with businesses, community groups, and governments to affect stuff like traffic flow or zoning laws.

Zone 2 is your standoff perimeter. This is where you draw the line and say that no unauthorized vehicles are going to get past. This is where you make the calculation that if an explosive in a car or truck goes off, the buildings you’re protecting will be safe enough.

The perimeter can be made from walls to fences, planters, light posts, reinforced benches, and bollards, among other stuff. A well designed perimeter can be made more open and inviting with some well-placed bollards and other things that provide enough protection with a more open feel.

Zone 3 is site access and parking. This is another spot where you can use bollards to control the flow of traffic. Retractable bollards can be used to protect entrances from ramming while allowing authorized vehicles through. Retractable or collapsible bollards can also be used in pedestrian areas that might require emergency vehicle access.

Zone 4 is your site, or the area between your standoff perimeter and your buildings. The bigger this zone is the better protected you are from explosions at the perimeter. This is an opportunity to have a big public plaza, a visitors center, outdoor art, a park or a café. Benches, bollards, planters, water features, and landscaping can be used to restrict vehicle access while keeping things open and inviting.

Zone 5 is your building envelope: the outside of the buildings you’re protecting and things like air vents and entrances.

Zone 6 is management and building operations. This can be anything from moving higher risk areas deep inside buildings to surveillance and security patrol planning.

All bollards aren’t created equal. The most elite bollards are certified K12 by the Department of State. They might be buried deep in the ground or have elaborate shallow roots in urban settings. These can stop a 15,000 pound flatbed truck at 50 miles per hour. They can only allow the front of the truck bed a single meter past the bollard. That’s stopping power.

I went looking for bollards in downtown and suburban Austin, Texas. Needless to say I found a ton. I put together a photo gallery at I ended up at one of the more complex site designs in Austin:

I’m outside the Texas State Capitol grounds at the standoff perimeter. There are beautiful flowers, a low wall and an ornate gate with bollards in front of it. Just to either side of me is a driveway with retractable bollards so cars can exit. The Capitol grounds also maximize the distance from the street to the building. There are paths and shade and statues and plaques. This is both successful site security design and a beautiful public space.

Overall I think bollards do a pretty excellent job at all the jobs that they do. They are definitely pretty open and pedestrian and bike friendly. The bang for buck on them usually makes a lot of sense too.

I’ll bet you see them everywhere you go today today.

You’ve been listening to The Tinycast, the place where you’re not at all surprised to hear from an anthropomorphized architectural element.

Music is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder, whose beats are so solid they’re rated K12. You can find them on SoundCloud, Bandcamp, or protecting street corners everywhere.

Today’s show is brought to you by where you can get a free audiobook and a 30 day free trial by visiting If you’re looking for books set at sea, check out Master and Commander, the first book in the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brien. Or try one of the Richard Bolitho novels by Douglas Reeman who writes as Alexander Kent. That’s right, even the ad copy is pedantic here. Get your free audiobook and your 30 day free trial at

As always, you can find tons of links to further reading at You can find us in iTunes,, and hopefully wherever you are. We’re on Twitter @thetinycast, and I’m @mc. You can see a photo gallery of all the bollards I encountered at

Episodes are also available at the Public Radio Exchange,

Further Reading


Save The Paternoster

This is Matt Croydon and you are listening to The Tinycast.

These days we humans think we have skyscraper transportation all figured out. If you walk in to the lobby of a building and want to go to the 23rd floor, you know exactly what to do. You find the elevator, push the button, the doors open, you get in the car and are whisked away vertically to your destination. Need to get from one floor to another in a department store? Maybe you’ll use an escalator instead.

But there was a time before modern elevators and escalators were the de facto standards in vertical transportation. There is another kind of elevator that works completely differently than the ones you are used to. It’s a relic of that time before we figured out how to best move humans up and down inside buildings. If it were an animal it would be on the endangered species list. It’s called the paternoster.

Instead of a single car moving up and down a shaft, a paternoster, sometimes called a cyclic elevator, is a series of open-front boxes in constant motion. These boxes are connected to two belts and two giant wheels at the top and two at the bottom of the shaft. If you were to walk up to a paternoster you would see cars constantly going up on one side and down on the other.

Rather than wait for the elevator doors to open, you just pick a direction, find an empty car, and hop on. When you get to the floor you want to go to, you hop off.

To understand why the paternoster is in trouble, you have to understand its way more popular older brother, the elevator. The era of the modern elevator probably began at the Worlds Fair at the Crystal Palace in New York City. Here in 1853 Elisha Otis dramatically demonstrated his new elevator safety brake. He stood on a platform high above the crowd. His son cut the rope holding the platform aloft. His device brought the platform to a swift stop.

This demonstration and the publicity around it turned the tide of public opinion. Riding on a platform suspended from a cable turned from the stuff of daring to a part of everyday life in America over the next decades.

Things were a little different in Europe. They looked on with interest and a little terror at what those crazy industrialist Americans were doing. Cities in Europe were much older than places like New York and Chicago. Laws, like the London Building Act of 1894 and others like it throughout Europe often capped building height. This was often for firefighting or safety reasons, preserving city layout and architecture, or a combination of those.

Without a need to optimize the vertical transport of humans to dizzying heights, engineers and architects in Europe were solving an essentially different problem.

The paternoster, or something very close to it was invented by Peter Ellis and installed in Oriel Chambers in Liverpool in 1868. Ellis designed and built the building a few years earlier to replace another that had burned to the ground. His “fireproof” iron and glass design was one of the earliest metal and glass curtain wall buildings ever built. It was bright and airy and way ahead of its time. It was also poorly received by local architects and tastemakers. In the 1960’s, architect and author Quentin Hughes guessed that this poor reception to Ellis’ architecture ultimately led him to focus less on buildings and more on civil and mechanical engineering.

By 1873, Ellis had stopped paying stamp duties on his patent and it became invalid. In 1877 Peter Hart obtained a patent for what would be called Hart’s Cyclic Elevator. As far as anyone can tell it’s really just a minor variation on Ellis’ earlier design, and two members of the Liverpool Historical Society believe that Ellis was paid to let his patent lapse. Hart’s Cyclic Elevator is described in an issue of Scientific American Supplement in 1882 and compared to a chain of pots, except, you know, big enough for people.

Paternosters become popular in England, and were brought to Germany by Freiherr von Ohlendorff, a merchant who had a paternoster installed in Hamburg in 1885. The paternoster caught on with the bureaucracy, and maybe 250 of them remain throughout Germany today.

But they’re under constant threat of disappearing forever. New construction of paternosters was forbidden in Germany in 1974 and they were almost banned completely in 1994. Only the outcry of paternoster-lovers kept that from happening. More recently, laws went into effect on June 1st, 2015 that prohibited their use by anyone who hadn’t taken a class in how to use them safely. Sanity prevailed later that month and on June 24th, Cabinet ministers decided that anyone could again ride the paternosters as long as there were enough warning signs nearby.

There are still a handful of paternosters in England. The tallest is in the Attenborough Building at the University of Leicester. There’s one in Northwick Park Hospital in London too, but you can’t ride it. Paternosters were also popular in Prague, and a handful are still running there, but so many more have been shut down throughout Europe.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m a dorky kind of Lorax, and I speak for the paternosters. Folks are quick to characterize them as dangerous or scary, but when you think about it, getting in and out of a paternoster is probably a lot like getting on or off an escalator.

So ride them while you can, if you’re nearby. Ride one on your next trip if that’s what it takes. They’re resilient little machines that have been on the edge of extinction for as long as I’ve known about them, and they’re fiercely defended by the people that love riding them.

If you want to stand in solidarity with the paternoster, send me a tweet @mc or @thetinycast. The first five people to mention paternoster will get a SAVE THE PATERNOSTER sticker mailed to them. If you want one for yourself you can grab it at

You have been listening to The Tinycast, the little podcast that goes around and around about interesting things. If you’d like to know more about Elisha Otis and his safety brake, I highly recommend you find the episode Six Stories on 99% Invisible or The Memory Palace. It’s pretty fantastic.

I have a ton of links to books, videos, articles from the 19th century and other stuff on our website, Check it out if you want to dig deeper.

Your ears do not deceive you. Music for today’s show is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. You can find more of his stuff on Soundcloud, Bandcamp and on podcasts like Reply All and Welcome to Macintosh. This episode also features the field recording A Paternoster at Charles University, Prague by Steven Dye and found on Sound Transit.

Today’s show is brought to you by where you can get a free audiobook and a 30 day free trial by visiting Might I suggest Charlie in the Great Glass Elevator, the sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Or, perhaps The Ersatz Elevator, book 6 in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Get your free trial at

You can find us in iTunes,, on Twitter, and hopefully wherever you are. If you know someone that would enjoy the show, do me a favor and tell them about it.

Episodes are also available at the Public Radio Exchange,

Further Reading