How Chicago Lifted Itself Out of the Swamp and Became a Modern Metropolis

By Building Canals, Laying Sewers, and Jacking Up Buildings, the Windy City Spurred Its Miraculous Growth

In 1833, Chicago was a wilderness outpost of just 350 residents, clumped around a small military fort on soggy land where the Chicago River trickled into Lake Michigan. The site was known to local natives as Chigagou, or the “wild garlic place.” By the end of the century, this desolate swamp had been transformed into a modern metropolis of 1.7 million, known the world over for its dense web of railroads, cruelly efficient slaughterhouses, fiery blast furnaces, and soaring skyscrapers.

Chicago’s rise was so sudden and so astounding that many observers …

Why Termites Are Giving Humans a Lot to Chew On

The Industrious "Underbug" Isn't Just Chomping Our Houses. It's Furnishing Clues About the Future of Technology, Energy, and Warfare.

Apart from mosquitoes and cockroaches, termites may be the least beloved insects rambling around our planet. But they’re also among the most underappreciated of creepy-crawlies—and their example can tell us …

How Crop Circles Saved the Great Plains

In the 1940s, Farmer Frank Zybach Invented Center Pivot Irrigation and Brought the Dust Bowl Back to Life

If you live in the Great Plains, sooner or later you’ll get a question about those “crop circles” that can be observed from airplane windows during flights over the region. …

Are Call Centers Rebranding the Philippines?

As the Global Economy's Biggest Back Office, the Nation Seeks to Depict Its Workers as Educated, Empathetic, and English Fluent

What changes in a country—and what doesn’t change—when it devotes itself to servicing the businesses of other countries?

Not long ago, I found myself looking for answers to that question in …

When Numeracy Superseded Literacy—and Created the Modern World

The Renaissance's Embrace of Numbers Revolutionized Commerce, Science, and Art

In 1025, two learned monks, Radolph of Liége and Ragimbold of Cologne, exchanged several letters on mathematical topics they had encountered while reading a manuscript of the sixth-century Roman philosopher, …