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Growing tension

Early humans built ephemeral brushwood structures for shelter, but the first semi-permanent habitations were almost certainly 'fabric' covered. Tanned animal skins can be durable and weatherproof and could be sown together with bone needles and dried sinew to form quite large canopies. Draped over a wood or mammoth-bone framework these formed the ideal dwelling for the semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers of the time.

Such tepees survive to this day in North America. So do the felt-clad yurts of the Mongolian steppes. But these are not tensile structures - the covering is not under tension. It was not until the invention of woven textiles that true fabric tension structures were possible - and the first of these were the sophisticated 'Black Tents' of North Africa and the Middle East.

Developed in the first millennium from the skin-clad travelling tents of the Tuareg and clad in black cloth woven from goat or camel hair, the classic Black Tent was a 'variable geometry' dwelling of astonishing efficiency. At its heart was three rows of relatively short poles, the centre row being somewhat taller than those each side. Goat hair straps connected the posts and long guy ropes tensioned the rectangular canopy.

In desert and near-desert environments, with the unlikely risk of water or snow ponding, the shallow slopes of the canopy gave aerodynamic efficiency. Its main function was to shade against the sun by day, protect against near freezing temperatures at night and shield against sandstorms driven by high desert winds.

The secret was to adapt the tent's geometry to suit the prevailing conditions. Side stakes raised the edges of the canopy to admit cooling breezes during the day and were removed at night. Canopy tension could be adjusted to suit wind conditions, guy ropes could be added or extended, support poles raked to below the tent's profile. So efficient was the design that it spread far to the east, right through Iran and Afghanistan to the Tibetan border - although there the canopy was usually woven from yak hair.

More formal, less versatile tents were common in early urban civilisations, but it was the Romans who appear to have taken fabric structures to new heights. It is believed they constructed massive awnings to shade the blood-thirsty spectators in the Colosseum and its clones throughout the Empire - although such illustrations that survive suggest the fabric was not under much tension, if any.

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