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Mole Man and Herrenknecht

December 18, 2009

Reading about underground architects and their visions of a troglodyte future got me thinking about the Mole Man. Going back to 1961, the Mole Man has been one of the featured supervillains in the Marvel comics universe. Before he was Mole Man, he was Harvey Rupert Elder, an eccentric American nuclear engineer and explorer, shunned by his scientist/explorer peers due to his hostile nature, dwarfish stature and absurd theories about a Hollow Earth. While on an expedition to Monster Island, Elder falls into a deep cave that appears to be part of a massive network. Before he can return to the surface and vindicate his theories, he stumbles into a cavern lined with highly reflective diamonds, whose brilliance leaves him partially blind. Unable to return to the surface world, Elder accepts his outcast-hood, dubs himself the Mole Man and begins exploring his new home: the vast underground kingdom, Subterranea. Eventually, he rises to power over a race called the Moloids. During a long career of sub-surface villainy, the Mole Man and his Moloids launch numerous invasions in a never-ending struggle to conquer the surface world – at one point, he steals buildings in New York City, by ‘sinking’ them. His incursions, of course, are always thwarted by the Fantastic Four.

But Mole Men are not only for the Marvel Universe.

Take Martin Herrenknecht, a German engineer and  the world’s largest manufacturer of “tunnel boring machines.” Herrenknecht’s “worms” are massive, cylindrical vehicles equipped with heavy-duty saws that chew through dozens of miles of the earth crust. In a profile on Herrenknecht last year in the New Yorker, Burkhard Bilger writes:

“At any given moment, close to a thousand Herrenknecht worms are burrowing under mountains, rivers, and cities on almost every continent. They have tunnelled along the San Andreas Fault, under the Yangtze River and beside the Bosporus, through catacombs in Rome and petrified pilings in Cairo.”

With his tunnel-digging empire, Herrenknecht seems to be engaged in a Mole Man-like struggle to conquer the surface world. Bilger cites a recent company newsletter, in which Herrenknecht sounds like he is rallying his Moloid minions:

“The process of urbanization now seems unstoppable.”  There are already more than three hundred cities around the world with more than a million inhabitants, “and the number of such mega-cities is increasing rapidly.” If developed countries are to avoid gridlock, the newsletter went on to suggest, their cities have to grow down as well as up. Every skyscraper needs a corresponding subway tunnel, every country a high-speed rail system to connect its urban centers. “This frontier can only be conquered by bold, innovative and confident engineers, companies, planners, investors, politicians and governments.”

“We are changing the world,” he says. “We are putting it in tunnels. That is my vision.”

I don’t know if anyone has seen the movie Antz – I imagine Herrenknecht up on a pedestal in front of his ant colony, pumping his fist, riling his workers into a frenzy of excavation.

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