Why a Duct?
Everything you ever wanted
to know about ducts*
*loosely defined

by Randy Woods

" '...Vy a duck?' "

Groucho: "Now, here is a little peninsula, and here is a viaduct leading over to the mainland."

Chico: "Vy a duck?"

Groucho: (pause) "...I’m alright, How are you?... I say, here is a peninsula, and here is a viaduct leading over to the mainland."

Chico: "Alright. Vy a duck?"

Groucho: "I’m not playing ‘Ask Me Another.’ I say that’s a viaduct."

Chico: "Alright! Vy a duck? That’s-a what I ... Vy a duck? Vy-a no chicken?"

Groucho: "Well... I dunno why-a no chicken -- I’m a stranger here, myself. All I know is that it’s a viaduct. You try to cross over there a chicken and you’ll find out why a duck..."



Indeed. Why a duck?

It may have been just a simple comedic question in the famous 1929 Marx Brothers film The Cocoanuts. But today, since you, dear reader, have clicked opened up this "ducts" web site, you might be asking a variation of this question yourself: "Why a duct?"

The answer to this timeless question may never be solved. You may as well ask, "What is the meaning of life?" This question, of course, is best left to deep philosophical thinkers like Stephen Hawking, the Pope or John Cleese.

The word "duct" comes from the Latin word "ducere," meaning "to lead," and that’s just what they do -- lead all types and states of matter from one point to another, making sure they don’t stray off to the side to smell the roses. Ducts make sure that business gets done, and gets done efficiently. A duct is no less than the establishment of order over chaos.

This web site, celebrating its one-year anniversary this month, was named "ducts" partially because it’s mission is to connect readers into all the diverse forms of arts, criticism, humor and absurdity that life throws at us. The duct is where these disparate Jackson-Pollack-like splatters of information can collect -- and congeal on the walls.

But it’s more than just literature and ideas we’re celebrating here. Ducts, in their most primitive and physical forms, deserve some respect, too.

For instance, look at the human body. We’re chock full of ducts -- blood vessels and digestion tracts and orifices and nerves. But do we give these ducts the respect they deserve? I should say not! There are thousands of ducts in the body, but what are the bodily fluids we most readily associate with the word "duct"? Tears and bile! Is that the best we can do, people?

To fully appreciate the duct, one has to delve into its long history. Though the duct may seem like a modern, Industrial Age invention, amazingly most duct concepts that we see today are more than 2,000 years old -- in some cases over 5,000 years. They only seem like modern concepts because of mankind’s 1,000-year vapor-lock (also called the Middle Ages), where we basically let everything fall apart and put most of our efforts into inventing new and more horrible ways to die.

It’s time to give ducts -- those hidden, selfless frameworks of efficiency -- their long-overdue day in the sun. Let’s take a look, shall we?

"...subtly refined into music."

Early man-made ducts

Natural ducts, of course, have been around us since the dawn of time – river beds, volcano throats, caves, etc. -- though we proto-humans didn’t notice them much while we were carrying clubs and dragging people around (or were being dragged) by their hair. It’s hard to say when humans first began to notice the utility of ducts. Perhaps one day, when a bored caveman picked up a nearby hollow log and bashed in his neighbor’s skull with it, he noticed that the log emitted a cool, humming sound. When all the other neighbors’ skulls were eventually bashed in and no longer sounded interesting, the caveman discovered he could reproduce the sound on his own, bashing his own head in.

Over the millennia, this hollow-log technique was subtly refined into music. Today, most musical instruments use some form of duct to produce musical notes, be it through a wood or brass tube, a metal string or the hollow of a drum. Other than luring members of the opposite sex into bed, scientists are still trying to figure out what other uses music may have.

Since so many great inventions have sprung up through sheer necessity, it only follows that man-made ducts really began to take off when people started starving and/or freezing to death. That’s when they realized that the two most vital elements of life -- water and air -- could be manipulated by the mighty duct and put to use for the good of Mankind.




Water was probably the first element to be successfully manipulated by ducts. It must have started about 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, when a struggling farmer noticed that while his crops were dying of thirst, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that rolled by on either side of his farm were flowing along, happy as can be, on their way to the Persian Gulf. Suddenly, the farmer realized that he didn’t have to wait for the gods to pour rain on his field. He could get it from the rivers, which were going to just piss it all into the gulf anyway. After months of carrying bucket after bucket of water from the river, the farmer (or maybe it was his annoying brother-in-law) had another, better idea: If he put a big enough stone, or series of stones, in the river, the river would have nowhere else to go and would eventually come to him instead. If he extended this "dam" to lead the water toward his farm, he would be able to farm his crops through the whole year.

This pioneer thinker, of course, was immediately drowned by the raging Tigris River. But after the other farmers in the area stopped laughing, they began to improve on the idea and invented the "canal."

For centuries, these irrigation ditches transformed the land. Huge areas of desert bloomed almost overnight as the duct work reached out past swollen riverbanks. Whole ancient societies, such as the Egyptians, Aztecs, Chinese, Assyrians and Scientologists, were centered on this web-like system of canals for irrigation and transportation.

Arguably the most famous major water duct in history was the aqueduct. Though these massive stone works are usually associated with the Romans, the Assyrians, Indians and Egyptians had created extensive aqueducts as early as 700 B.C. It was the Romans, however, who stole, er, "improved upon," these ideas, creating 260 miles of aqueducts radiating from Rome to provide drinking and irrigation water. These were no mere ditches, by any standard. Rising sometimes three or four stories high, these classic ducts were built over a 500-year period, beginning in the 4th century B.C., with soaring arches and columns meant to stand the test of time.

After experimenting with canals and aqueducts for thousands of years, other aquatic variants were created. Breakthroughs in fluid mechanics, such as Bernoulli’s Principle and Archimedes’ Screw eventually gave us siphons and Cartesian wells, allowing civilizations to bring water uphill via subterranean ducts. Other less celebrated Dark Age breakthroughs, such as bubonic plague, cholera and diphtheria led to modern plumbing systems, allowing civilizations to carry their wastewater away in wooden or metal pipes and forcing the dirty, ignorant masses to stop pissing and shitting wherever the hell they felt like it, and maybe wash their damn hands once a year, for cryin’ out loud. I mean, come on!

These immense water projects later spawned much smaller, though no less important, duct-like offshoots of the modern era, such as the fountain pen, the water pistol, the dribble glass, and, most notably, Krazy Straw, the wacky sipping device enjoyed by countless children of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

"...the first instance of 'central heating' in recorded history..."


While Mankind was busy conquering the rivers and streams, making sure they could waste all the water they wanted for future generations, some people started to notice that every winter some of the smaller members of their families had the annoying habit of freezing to death during the colder winters. Thus sprung the idea for the heating duct.

First used by the Chinese and the Ancient Greeks in the 7th century B.C., house-warming flues and chimneys were improved vastly by those prolific copy-cats, the Romans. In what is arguably the first instance of "central heating" in recorded history, the Romans, by around 300 to 200 B.C., were able to heat entire palaces with their ingenious "hypocaust" system. Under the gleaming mosaic tile floors of the filthy rich Roman elite, a checkerboard of vertical columns were placed at even intervals, creating narrow passages, or ducts, through which air could circulate. These passages were all tied together to a central furnace, fueled by wood or coal, that would propel the heated air through the ducts and warm the floors and walls.

After being forgotten for 1,500 years during those good-time Dark Ages, the same basic idea was revived during the Renaissance, and later employed in the 19th century using heated steam or water through metal pipes. It is not known whether the early hypocausts made as much damn racket as the modern radiators do in typical, modern Manhattan efficiencies.

Pretty soon, those people living in the warmer, wetter regions of the globe, like India, Southeast Asia and Boca Raton, Fla., started saying, "Hey, enough with the heat already! How about cooling us off, huh?" It wasn’t until the 19th century that these insufferable whines were finally answered with invention of the atomized sprayer, a series of small, water-filled ducts that sprayed a fine mist and cooled the air through evaporation. First developed by the textile industry, these duct-fed atomizers made it possible for the thousands of nameless nine-year-old girls in textile sweatshops to work an average of 60 minutes longer per day before collapsing in exhaustion, and also allowed them an extra source of drinking water when the spray condensed on their tiny eyelashes. And did they ever once say "thank you?" Of course not!... Kids!

By the 1930s, the development of "freon" allowed a much more efficient way of cooling ambient air and reducing moisture through condensation. After many horrifying attempts by the Mennen Corporation to develop this freon substance as a bracing aftershave, scientists found that much less freezing and cracking of skin occurred when freon was confined to small "air conditioning" units and continually evaporated and condensed to draw heat and moisture out of the air; the air was then blown through metal ducts throughout large buildings. Today, industrialists the world over are discovering new ways to play God by spraying freon and other hydrocarbons directly into the ozone layer, thus making our planet toasty and warm all over. Thanks, industrialists!

Other stuff

As we’ve seen, ducts have made themselves famous by carrying air and water since the time of Bob Dole’s early childhood. But many thousands of years before that, they were also instrumental in carrying solid objects, including people, though in a much different form. Roads and bridges were used as rudimentary duct-like structures well before 3000 B.C., at about the time of the invention of the wheel.

Roads, however, became true ducts after the development of the "tunnel." The idea of digging tunnels has been around since Early Man first decided to add a rec-room to his cave, but the first large-scale tunnels were found in ancient Babylonia. A 3,000-foot, brick-lined tunnel under the Euphrates River, completed in 2160 B.C., once connected the royal palace to a temple. Later, even longer underground tunnels were built by ... Oh, let’s not always see the same hands... Anyone else?... Oh, all right -- yes, the Romans again. Both Romans and Greeks built tunnels for transportation, irrigation, marsh reclamation and inadvertent suffocation (these early tunnels could be a bitch to ventilate). This type of extremely dangerous, unstable technology was eventually perfected by the mining industry, which continues to use mines to kill hundreds upon hundreds of laborers every year.

With a little help from their cousins, the air ducts, tunnel ventilation eventually became possible. Thus, a new era of slightly less lethal tunnel transportation was born during the Industrial Revolution with the advent of the railroad. By the mid-1800s, whole mountain ranges were being conquered by the judicious blasting of rail tunnels through solid rock -- costing only about three or four dead immigrant workers per mile -- all so that brave new imperialist settlers could steal more land from native peoples around the globe at the breakneck speed of 17 mph.

By the 1850s and 1860s, large cities began digging "subway" train ducts under their busy, crowded streets, allowing people to move -- and muggers to rob -- far more efficiently than the older, better-lit above-ground methods. Also around this time, the concept of the "passenger elevator" was developed by Elisha Graves Otis, turning the idea of the tunnel on its end and providing a new and creative way for victims to die in murder-mystery paperbacks.

Once there was no more frontier land to steal, the transportation of industrial objects via ducts became the focus of many engineers during the 20th century. Self-propelled ducts, such as conveyor belts and assembly lines, helped to speed up industrial production and further dull the wits of an increasingly restless labor pool.

The pinnacle of such duct-based transport systems is arguably the "pneumatic tube." First used by many early 20th century corporations to send internal documents and other messages from one office to another, these ducts were powered by a high-speed blast of air sent through a labyrinth of small metal ducts. Sure, these systems would often break down and get clogged, or the paper would often get sent to the wrong office. Nevertheless, many large department stores and warehouses continued to use the pneumatic tubes right up until the 1970s, simply because it was just really neat to see the canister disappear like magic and make that cool "shhhhTOOP!" sound.

"...constant symbols of cold efficiency, institutional intrusion and just plain creepiness..."

Mass culture

All shhhhTOOP-ing aside, ducts have always been steadfastly utilitarian constructions. They get the job done, they don’t complain and they don’t ask for coffee breaks (that is, until they actually do break). But let’s not forget the cultural contributions ducts have made, especially in the cinema.

Think about it -- has there ever been a film noir, gangster, action/adventure or science-fiction thriller ever been put to the silver screen that has not used some kind of duct to either propel the plot or set the suspenseful tone? Has a James Bond movie been made that has not featured the hero/villain crawling through some conveniently shoulders-wide air duct deep in the bowels of a vast industrial complex? Has any thief or stool-pigeon ever been interrogated and smacked around in a warehouse without some air duct appearing in the background, it’s fan blades slowly turning in the breeze?

From Fritz Lang’s silent sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis (1927), with its conveyor-belted hallways transporting the identical worker drones through scary duct-like hallways, to Ridley Scott’s terrifying Alien (1979), the claustrophobic space-horror film that constantly blurs the line between artificial and biological intelligence, ducts have been constant symbols of cold efficiency, institutional intrusion and just plain creepiness in their similarity to human entrails.

Ducts can also be symbols of cinematic hubris. What was it that brought the destruction of the "indestructible" Death Star in the original Star Wars (1977)? Why, a tiny, forgotten ventilation duct that happens to be just two photon torpedoes wide and leads directly to the central energy core of the space station. What allowed prisoners to crawl away from the "inescapable" Stalag Luft Nord P.O.W. camp in The Great Escape (1963)? Ingeniously hidden and expertly crafted tunnels dug by the prisoners underneath the outer fence. And most famously, what really sunk the big boat in Titanic (1997)? Obviously, it was the ducts that were drilled into the audience’s skulls by Celine Dion’s excruciating song.

Perhaps the quintessential portrayal of the cinematic duct can be found in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985). In this epic, fantastic, jet-black comedy, an oppressive Orwellian regime of the future is symbolized in nearly every scene by twisted, quivering, seemingly sentient ducts. Every wall of the film’s squalid cityscape is literally bursting with them, monitoring every move of the citizenry and strangling them like deadly boa constrictors. No other film better captures the sense of foreboding and paranoia that is conveyed by the image of the ubiquitous, opaque duct.

In the 1999 movie Galaxy Quest, about actors from a television sci-fi series who have been transported into an actual outer-space scenario with real aliens, slightly lighter homage is paid to the ducts-in-film theme. Under fire from aliens and crawling on all fours through a spaceship’s gleaming ventilation duct, Alien alumnus Sigorney Weaver mutters, as she rolls her eyes: "Ducts … Why is it always ducts?"

On a lighter note still, no history of ducts would be complete without a mention of, by far, their most popular accessory: Duct tape. During the Second World War, the U.S. military and the Johnson & Johnson Company invented the ubiquitous problem-solver as a way to keep their ammunition boxes dry during extended all-weather combat operations. The rubber-backed adhesive was made with an extremely sticky glue and a cloth base that could easily be ripped by hand, in case soldiers had to make quick repairs under fire. The original tape, colored olive drab, was an instant success and an invaluable tool that helped win the war. Since it was waterproof, soldiers referred to the miracle tape as "duck" tape (apparently they were just as confused as Chico Marx).

After the war, those same soldiers returned home and began bending their swords into timeshares in the endless sprawl of suburbia. Instead of ammo boxes and rifle butts, these weekend warriors now had to fix furnaces and lawnmowers, and still demanded the utility of their beloved "duck" tape. Never a company to miss a chance to turn its products into household names, Johnson & Johnson replaced the "k" with a "t" in the name, changed the olive color to a more neutral (but still macho) gun-metal gray to blend in better with most metal duct work and created a monstrously popular, sticky masculine icon called duct tape. The amazingly versatile adhesive has since spawned countless how-to books, web pages, fan clubs and even some haute couture fashion guides for the more personality-challenged men of today who have yet to obtain lives.

Ducts of the ... future

So what is to become of "the duct"? In this world of high-tech, wireless streamlining, are the days of the old-fashioned, inescapably hardware-oriented duct numbered? Actually, the future of the duct may not be as bleak as you’d think.

The advent of the Internet, in its quest to erase all boundaries, and make one homogeneous, simultaneously accessible planet, has doubtless put the advancement of duct technology on the back burner, so to speak. Modern, solid-state computer technology has done away with many old-fashioned ducts, i.e., water-coolant pipes and vacuum tubes. Now the Internet culture is going after even the most subtly refined versions of ducts -- electrical wires and fiber optics. The coming wireless revolution, with its radio and microwave transmissions and voice-recognition modules, may end the need for wires as we know it.

But, the last I heard, there has been no progress on attempts to make a "ductless" human intestinal tract. Though it would be nice to just blink, like in I Dream of Jeannie, and make unpleasant things disappear, we still have plenty of fluids and solids -- bodily or otherwise -- that still need to urgently move from Point A to Point B. The shortest distance between the two is still a duct. No matter how hard we try to deny it, were still living in the material world, and ducts will always be needed to make sure that world keeps running.

But why limit ourselves to just earthly ducts? Ducts have often been associated with extraterrestrial phenomena, as well. Astronomer Percival Lowell, for instance, in his careful observations and sketches of the planet Mars in 1895, believed that the strange, spidery discolorations on the planet’s surface were enormous canals that had been dug by a hyper-intelligent race of beings, who desperately needed to bring the ice from their planet’s polar regions to its warmer equatorial zone.

Who says, however, that other ducts aren’t being built by other beings from beyond our comprehension? We already have found evidence of "black holes" in distant parts of the universe. Many astronomers, such as the late, great Carl Sagan believed that these unimaginably dense "singularities" may be portals to other universes or wormholes that allow us to travel through time, rather than space. Basically, there may very well be "cosmic ducts" out there.

So, the next time you flush that toilet, turn up the thermostat or fire that spitball across the office at your co-workers, think for a moment about what duct is making those vital actions possible. From the tiniest bile duct, to your noisy apartment radiator, to the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, let’s take a moment to give a little salute to The Duct.

Then please rinse it out when you’re done. Thank you.

" '...You see that wire fence?' "

Groucho: "Well, that’s fine ... Now, you know how to get there?"

Chico: "No... I.... it’s-a strange..."

Groucho: "Now look, rube... You go down there, down that narrow path there, until you come to a little jungle there. You see it?"

Chico: "That’s-a where..."

Groucho: "Where those thatched palms are? And then there’s a little clearing there -- a little clearing with a wire fence around it?... You see that wire fence?"

Chico: "Alright-a ... Why a fence?..."

Groucho: "OH, no! We’re not gonna go all through that again!..."


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