I was once asked why manhole covers were round. The questioner was a gentleman who had obviously ingested a large quantity of mind altering substances, severely limiting his ability to pay attention, as evidenced by him wandering off in the middle of my explanation.
While meandering around the piers today, I found another man, naked and raving to the heavens, and I was struck with a remembrance of my interrupted spiel. I do not consider myself a man who allows unfinished business to weight on my mind, and thus I have committed this to paper, in a letter to you, Dear Samuel, so as to have an uncluttered mind towards future business.
As far as manhole covers go, it all dates back to the early 1900s in New York City. I’m sure you’ve heard the myth of alligators in the sewers, but what few people realize is that in the early 1900s, most people hadn’t ever heard of an alligator, let alone seen one. Naturally, the Cabinets of Curiosities within Manhattan, in a grotesque arms race to get the most outlandish spectacles they possibly could, found that a creature which, to the lay person, resembled an ancient Dinosaur would be an instant sell-out attraction. Unfortunately, the safety measures needed to keep the Ape-Boy and the Amazing Conjoined Twins under wraps were woefully inadequate to contain the mighty specimens they had acquired though several less-than-honest purveyors of exotic species from the Louisiana Bayou. Thus, more than a few escaped. Any casualties sustained during these escapes were swept under the rug with a word in the right ear and a $20-bill wrapped handshake, as was the norm during that time in that place. Many years later, during the Great Depression’s Public Works programs, the sewer system in New York City was decided to be the beneficiary of a much needed renovation.
At first, the stories of murderous lizards in the sewers were written off as side-effects of breathing in the incredible amounts of methane gas in these rancid sewers, but after months, the stories reached a crescendo that demanded to be taken seriously. Of course, once the Assistant Mayor, during a tour of the city’s most major Public Works program, encountered a beast (and nearly losing a limb in the process), all possible haste was demanded of the nascent New York Police Department to solve this problem.
Unfortunately, when they discovered the infestation of alligators living in the labyrinthine tunnels beneath New York City, they were flummoxed as to a solution. The few animal exterminators they consulted failed to offer any solution that would kill the beasts, and the constabulary resigned themselves to having to send officer after officer down in the murky depths, hunting the beasts in a never-ending quest to eradicate them in a preposterous war of attrition. That is, until a young engineering student named Stanley Stumpworth, who just so happened to be a nephew of one of the officers, figured that, owing to a quirk in the alligator’s anatomy, namely their bulky shoulders and short legs, rounded entrances and exits to the sewers would effectively keep them locked in the sewers. The sewer plans hadn’t yet been finalized beyond repairs, and retrofitting the few covers already implemented proved inconsequential. Since New York City is seen to be the arbiter of all architectural taste (although Chicago would never admit to it), soon every city was copying their design for their own sewer systems.
And thus, round manhole covers.