Engineering HOF – WIF Into History

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History’s Greatest

Engineering Achievements

The history of civilization is replete with examples of humanity improving the world in which it lives. Through ingenuity, imagination, and hard work, humanity has spanned rivers, built roads, erected cities, and created the infrastructure to connect them. Some projects took centuries to complete; others were finished with alacrity, driven by immediate needs. Many were treated with derision by contemporaries who considered the vision of their proponents’ to be delusional. Some — the Panama Canal being one example of many — were completed only after a spectacular and expensive failure during earlier attempts. Still others were spurred by the competition between nations and empires

Spectacular feats of engineering preceded the term engineer. The master builders and visionaries evolved over the centuries from mathematicians (spontaneously, it would seem) across the globe. The Great Wall in China, the pyramids of the Maya and Aztec cultures, the cities of the ancient world all were accomplished by engineering, though the builders and designers were unaware that they were engineers. Over the centuries, engineering accomplishments were directed at the worship of gods and heroes, the improvement of societal life, and to simply celebrate the spirit of humanity. Here are 10 of the greatest engineering achievements in history.

10. The Roman Water Distribution System

Three centuries before the beginning of the Common Era the Roman Republic, later the Empire, distributed water throughout its dominions using a system of canals, pipes, reservoirs, standing tanks, and aqueducts. Entirely through the use of gravity the Romans distributed fresh water to cities and towns, as well as to mines and farms. Some of the aqueducts still stand, architectural marvels built by laborers under the supervision of surveyors and master builders. By the end of the third century the city of Rome was serviced by eleven separate water conduits distributing water throughout the city, and in the case of the wealthier citizens directly into their homes. Poorer residents resorted to public wells and baths.

The empire was serviced with water systems as well, operated by both local governments and the state. Natural springs were the preferred sources of water. Easements were established by law on either side of the conduit’s pathway. The waterways were liberally supplied with inspection points – which would today be called manholes – and the water was routinely inspected for purity. Lead pipes were used in some sections, though the use of ceramic piping was preferred, and sections of the aqueducts which were of concrete were lined with brick, to prevent erosion and to help filter the water. The system was so well designed and built that there are sections still in use for the distribution of fresh water nearly 20 centuries after they were built.

9. The Cathedral of Hagia Sophia

Built as a Christian church and later converted to an Islamic mosque, the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia is today a museum, and an iconic image of Turkey. Originally constructed in the sixth century it has survived rioting, looting by conquerors, earthquakes, fires, and the ravages of time. Built chiefly of masonry, it is easily recognized by its corner minarets and its massive dome. Built and rebuilt many times over the years, it remains a symbol of Byzantine architecture, and for over 1,000 years Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world. Its design was revolutionary in its day.

The huge dome is set upon a square base, supported by four triangle shaped pendentives in the square’s corners. The pendentives carry the weight of the dome and direct it downwards, rather than outwards as the shape of the dome would otherwise dictate. Though the dome collapsed on more than one occasion, and was modified during rebuilding to include ribs which help distribute its weight to the supporting walls, each rebuilding strengthened it and improved the overall structure of the building. Hagia Sophia is a museum of both the Christian and Islamic faiths, as well as the Byzantine Empire and the Crusades. It remains one of the largest masonry buildings in the world in the 21st century.

8. The Leshan Buddha

Carved from a single stone and completed in the early ninth century, the Great Buddha of Leshan stands over 230 feet tall, with a breadth across the shoulders of 92 feet. It is the tallest statue of Buddha to be found in the world, carved from the sandstone of a cliff overlooking the junction of the Min and Dadu Rivers in Sichuan. Ordinarily sandstone would be easily eroded by the rainwater which has fallen on the statue over the centuries. That it hasn’t is a tribute to the ingenious engineering which controls the flow of water through and behind the statue, which has served to protect it since its completion circa 803 CE.

The Leshan Buddha includes over 1,000 coiled hair buns, of stone, which are placed on the statue’s head. They were designed to collect rainwater, and to route it to a system of drains and drainpipes which allow the water to flow through the statue’s head and arms, draining out the back, behind the stone clothes and away from the statue, protecting it from the effects of erosion. The system was installed as part of the original carving. Originally protected by a wooden shelter which was destroyed by the Mongols, the statue has stood exposed to the elements for seven centuries, with its drainage system protecting it from erosion. Today the greatest threat to the statue is the heavily polluted air of the region, a factor its designers could not have anticipated.

7. The Erie Canal

Between the Hudson River and Lake Erie land elevation increases by about 600 feet. Canal locks of the day (1800) could raise or lower boats about 12 feet, which meant that at least 50 locks would be required to build a canal which linked the Hudson with the Great Lakes. President Thomas Jefferson called the project “…little short of madness.” New York’s governor, Dewitt Clinton, disagreed and supported the project, which led to its detractors calling the canal “Dewitt’s Ditch” and other, less mild pejoratives. Clinton pursued the project fervently, overseeing the creation of a 360 mile long waterway across upstate New York, which linked the upper Midwest to New York City. The cities of Buffalo, New York, and Cleveland, Ohio, thrived once the canal was completed, in 1825.

The engineering demands of the canal included the removal of earth using animal power, water power (using aqueducts to redirect water flow), and gunpowder to blast through limestone. None of the canal’s planners and builders were professional engineers, instead they were mathematics instructors, judges, and amateur surveyors who learned as they went. Labor was provided by increased immigration, mostly from Ireland and the German provinces. When it was completed in 1825 the canal was considered an engineering masterpiece, one of the longest canals in the world. The Erie Canal’s heyday was relatively short, due to the development of the railroads, but it led to the growth of the port of New York, and spurred the building of competing canals in other Eastern states.

6. The Brooklyn Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge was originally envisioned by John Roebling, who had built suspension bridges of shorter spans across the Ohio River and at other locations. The project in Brooklyn and Manhattan led to an accident which cost Roebling his life, and the engineering challenges passed to his son, Washington Roebling. Washington was stricken with the bends early in the construction, and was forced to supervise the project from his Manhattan apartment. The engineering challenges were difficult; wooden caissons were sunk to the bottom of the East River, with men inside them to excavate the river bottom until the caissons reached bedrock. In the case of the east tower supporting the bridge, they never did. The tower rests on sand to this day.

It took 14 years to complete the project, from 1869 -1883. Often described as a suspension bridge, the structure is in reality a hybrid suspension/cable stayed bridge, with the load of the span transferred by wire cables to the towers, and thence to the bedrock on the Brooklyn side, and the sand over the bedrock on the Manhattan side. In the 21st century it carries six lanes of traffic as well as bicycles and pedestrians, though it no longer accommodates rail traffic, nor commercial vehicles. It was considered the engineering masterpiece of the world at the time of its completion, spanning nearly six thousand feet, and linking the formerly separate cities of Brooklyn and New York.

5. The Eiffel Tower

Gustave Eiffel built the iconic symbol of Paris – indeed of all of France – to serve as the gateway to the 1889 World’s Fair. Contrary to popular belief, Eiffel did not design the tower, instead purchasing the patent rights to the design from engineers within his employ. He then signed a contract for the construction of the tower acting as himself, rather than as his company, and later set up another company to handle the management of the tower and the income derived from it. The design of the tower was controversial from the outset, with artists and engineers complaining of its lack of aesthetic value. It was said that French writer Guy de Maupassant ate at the restaurant in the tower after its completion because it was the only place in Paris from which the tower could not be seen.

The ironwork was delivered to the site with holes for connecting bolts pre-drilled, and as they were installed the tower was brought into proper alignment through the use of hydraulic jacks installed near the four feet of the structure. Creeper cranes climbed the legs of the tower to erect each succeeding level. The tower was declared complete in March 1889, at the time the tallest man-made structure in the world. It reached the height of 1,063 feet and remains the tallest structure in Paris. The tower was to have been dismantled in 1909, under the terms of the original contract, but its usefulness as a radio transmitter gained it a longer lease on life. By the end of the twentieth century the idea of dismantling the tower was unthinkable.

4. The Panama Canal

The 51-mile long cut across the Isthmus of Panama was a dream for many decades prior to the French beginning its construction in 1881. During the building of America’s Transcontinental Railroad, equipment for use in the Sierras was shipped from the east coast of the United States to Panama, transferred across the Isthmus, and then shipped to California. Engineers for years studied the building of a canal before the French attempted to complete one, but the engineering difficulties combined with the climate and politics to thwart their efforts after more than two decades. The United States stepped in where the French failed, and completed the canal in 1914, after another ten years of work.

The canal is actually two canals, connected on either end with an artificial lake, Lake Gatun, located 85 feet above sea level. Locks on the two canals raise or lower ships to or from the level of the lake, allowing them to traverse from Atlantic to Pacific, or vice versa. The canal allows ships to transfer from one ocean to the other in just under twelve hours. It was the engineering decision to abandon the sea level canal design favored by the French and instead create Lake Gatun through the building of Gatun Dam (then the largest dam in the world) and install locks to raise and lower ships which allowed the Americans to succeed in completing the dam, which changed shipping lanes and inter-ocean traffic forever.

3. The Channel Tunnel

For centuries the British Isles remained unconnected to the European continent, a situation which many Britons favored as critical to their national security. Numerous proposals for a tunnel beneath the channel were put forth, but opposition within England and France prevented any serious efforts. Attempts to build tunnels for automobile traffic were started and stopped in the mid-to-late 20th century. Finally, in the late 1980s, after the usual political and professional maneuvering among governments, businesses, and financiers, work on the tunnels for high speed rail trains got underway, already bearing the nickname by which it is best known today, the Chunnel.

The tunnel was built from both sides, using massive tunnel boring machines – TBMS – to approach each other. The machines bore through what is mostly chalk, though the varying geology of the French shore created some difficulties. Both the French and English used the removed spoil for land reclamation projects. The tunnels were lined with both cast iron and reinforced concrete. When completed, the tunnel provided electrical power to the trains running through it via overhead lines. The tunnel opened in 1994, and today allows for a trip from London to Paris in just over two hours. The tunnel also allows for freight traffic delivering goods manufactured throughout Europe to be imported to Britain, and British goods to find markets on the continent.

2. Burj Khalifa

The world’s tallest structure as of 2019, Burj Khalifa is a mixed use skyscraper in Dubai, which was completed in 2009. The building was designed by the same Chicago firm which designed the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in that city, and uses the same engineering principle of bundled tubes at its core to support the building’s weight. The tubular design allowed for substantially less steel to be used in construction, with most of the building being reinforced concrete. Its spire alone, which is mostly decorative, would qualify it as the 11th tallest structure in Europe were it erected on the continent.

The building has an outdoor swimming pool located on the 76th floor, with another on the 43rd floor. A 300 room hotel is located within the building, as well as corporate offices and private apartments. For those of a hardy constitution, 2,909 steps connect the ground floor with the 160th. The observation deck is located on the 124th floor. The surrounding park, known as Burj Khalifa Park, is landscaped with desert plants which are kept hydrated using water collected by the building’s cooling system, which itself relies on the cooler air of the upper portion of the building to decrease the temperatures of the lower portion of the structure.

1. The Apollo Space Program

It remains one of the signature engineering achievements in the history of the human race. No other program has delivered human beings to an environment other than their home planet and returned them safely to earth. Americans not only walked on the surface of the moon, they drove on it, using a battery driven vehicle designed for the purpose, capable of carrying two astronauts and greatly increasing the area which the lunar explorers could cover. It was carried to the moon within the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) and used for the final three moon missions in the early 1970s. In 2003, the National Academy of Engineers called the program the “…greatest engineering team effort in American history.”

The Apollo program led to significant advances in the development of integrated circuitry, contributed to the growing cause of environmentalism, and over 20% of the world’s population watched on television when astronaut Neil Armstrong left the first human footprints on the lunar surface. NASA claimed spin-offs from the space program in the areas of freeze-dried foods, emergency reflective blankets, hand-held portable vacuum cleaners, and more than 2,000 other areas. LASIK surgery is a direct descendant of the technology developed to dock with vehicles in space, first performed as part of the Gemini program, in which astronauts learned the techniques required of Apollo.

Engineering HOF –

WIF Into History

Alpha Omega M.D. – Episode # 160

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Alpha Omega M.D. – Episode # 160

… It is not like Theodore Roosevelt has not had his hands full in 1906…

Teddy Roosevelt-001

The telegraph lines have been scorching forth and back between Rochester and Tallahassee, Boston, Quincy and Washington, whose resident president insists on hosting the real Eastman-Pearson union; a somewhat shorter trip for the Southern contingent, who are far from strangers to the White House.

Alice Roosevelt

Alice Roosevelt Longworth

The fact that Roosevelt’s daughter from his first marriage, “Princess Alice” as she is affectionately called by newspaper reporters assigned to Washington, is getting married there two months before the Pearsons, will make for a nonstop, romping-stomping celebration of family and friend. If you were not invited and you consider yourself one of the beautiful people, you would not dare admit it, for fear of becoming a social has-been.

 But it is not like Theodore Roosevelt has not had his hands full in 1906. There are hints, led by a dwindling money supply that is pointing toward an economic crisis. Ten or more years of prosperity and growth are threatened by a war between Russia and Japan, which we’ve had to play both sides to the middle, the enormous cash vacuum in the wake of the San Francisco earthquake and unprecedented railroad expansionism.

Big stick-001

Big stick-001

For the first time in recent memory, the United States has flat out outspent its income and banks do not have the money to cover the outflow. There is also a strange coincidence concerning the purchase of the rights to the Panama Canal, with all its burdens cast in iron; excavation equipment needed for the largest works project ever attempted.


Apart from the fray, the times when a leader must separate himself, Roosevelt is true to those who have aided his glorious run in the White House. No one who has ever held the nation’s highest office has enjoyed as much as he; the power, the prestige, the trappings. Someone heard him say once: “I can’t believe they are paying me for this job.”

  Dutch by birth, a Van Roosevelt original surname, he had led the comfortable life to this point, except for a pre-teen period when he was puny and in ill health, resulting in torments from cruel mischievers. Training at the family gymnasium took care of that problem and is chiefly responsible for the rugged bravado he has displayed ever since. Wherever he goes, whoever he is with, his “big stick” is always close at hand.


Alpha Omega M.D.


Episode # 160

page 149



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Contents 2-3-16

Great Construction Projects in America

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"Where is the WABAC Machine going to take us this time, Mr. Peabody?

“Where is the WABAC Machine going to take us this time, Mr. Peabody?

“Set the WABAC for 1914 and the building of the Panama Canal, Sherman My Boy.”

 10 Great American

Construction Projects


Looking back…

On March 27, 1975, work began on the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.  More than just an 800 mile 48 inch diameter pipe, the vast system includes 11 pumping stations and hundreds of miles of smaller pipes that feed the big pipe.  The US has undertaken many great construction projects, and here we list 10 of them.  We would like to know what projects you think should have been on this list and which should not have.

Digging, building, blasting…..

10. Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.

Overcoming objections by environmentalists and working in the frozen north presented quite a task.  Cracked fact: Native Americans had mined crude oil from peat soaked in oil for hundreds of years on Alaska’s North Slope.  Running from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, the pipeline pumps up to 2.1 million barrels of oil per day.  Objections by Native Alaskans were apparently relegated to second class status after the frightening economic results of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo. Completed in 1977, projections are that less than 500,000 barrels of oil per day will be flowing through the pipeline by 2015.

9. Mount Rushmore.

Sculptures cut into the rock of a mountain face depicting 4 of our presidents with 60 foot tall heads makes this masterpiece the largest sculpture of heads in the world. Construction ran from 1927 until completion in 1941, with the original sculptor, Gutzon Borglum dying in March 1941 only months before the project was done. Borglum’s son, Lincoln, supervised the completion of the memorial. Located in South Dakota, Mount Rushmore is the state’s number one tourist attraction (in a state where tourism is the second biggest industry) with 2 to 3 million visitors per year.  The presidents depicted on the sculpture are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. Cracked fact: The sculptures were planned to show the presidents from the waist up, but time and money ran short, leaving just the heads.  This magnificent sculpture features prominently in the Alfred Hitchcock movie, North by Northwest (1959).

8. Tennessee Valley Authority System.

Chartered by congress in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression, the TVA was created to build a series of hydro-electric dams across the Appalachian South, from Virginia to Mississippi.  Although people displaced by the reservoirs resulting from the dams were not thrilled with the project, most people in the region were happy to get the jobs, cheap electricity (often where there had been none) and the recreational opportunities provided by the lakes.  A total of 46 dams have been built along with an additional couple dozen electric power plants, and even 5 nuclear power plants. Of course, everything comes with a price and environmentalists have long complained of the negative environmental impact of dams upon the natural wildlife.

7. Empire State Building.

The tallest building in the world from 1931 to 1970, this mighty skyscraper remains the very symbol of New York City, arguably the greatest city in the world.  In July of 1945, a B-25 Mitchell medium bomber crashed into the 80th floor, killing 14 people.  Cracked fact: The airplane crash caused an elevator to fall 75 stories, which the elevator operator survived, still the longest elevator fall ever to be survived.  Over the years, something over 30 people have chosen to leap from various floors of the building (to their deaths, of course), and that is not even counting King Kong!  Cracked fact:Although not an emergency hurry up project, it took only 2 years to build the Empire State Building.  An incredible amount of cultural references have been made to this grand tower, including the previously mentioned film, King Kong (1933).  Cracked fact: Dirigibles (Zeppelins) were originally expected to dock at the very top of the building!

6. Hoover Dam.

Originally called Boulder Dam, Hoover Dam was built during the Great Depression, completed in 1936.  More than 100 men lost their lives on this massive project, but that was when jobs were so scarce workers flocked to the huge project.  Over 1200 feet long and over 700 feet high, Hoover Dam is 45 feet wide at the top and over 600 feet wide at the bottom. The largest concrete structure in history to that point, work was actually completed 2 years ahead of schedule.  That might be the most impressive fact.  Cracked fact: A million people a year visit the dam as a tourist site.  Controversy over the dam’s name caused both Hoover Dam and Boulder Dam to be used until 1947 when congress officially name it Hoover Dam.  The river dammed by Hoover Dam is the Colorado River, and the lake created by the dam, Lake Mead, is the largest (by volume) reservoir in the US.

5. The Alcan Highway.

Actually called The Alaska Highway (among other names) this giant project was another one of those “hurry up and get it done right now” propositions due to the emergency of World War II.  Stretching 1700 miles from British Columbia to Delta Junction in Alaska, the Alcan was built to allow overland travel back and forth from the continental United States to Alaska.  The route was planned and reconnoitered by dog sled and the Canadian government offered no financial assistance (as they saw no need for the highway for Canadian purposes).  Started in March of 1942, the highway was completed by November of 1942, an incredible accomplishment.  Dealing with mushy ground was a major problem not solvable by conventional means.  Bulldozers got stuck and stayed stuck. Laying logs across the roadway in the old pioneer fashion (“corduroy” road) was the answer.  Working at a feverish pace to complete the job before winter, much of the work was performed by African-Americans.  The highway was opened to the public in 1948, and today is a few hundred miles shorter than it was at first due to making a more direct route.

4. The Wilderness Road.

Cut through the wilderness from Virginia to Louisville, Kentucky across the Cumberland Gap, the road was built entirely by men with axes and saws and shovels.  No machines! Daniel Boone himself blazed the trail and the road was the most important east-west road for pioneers for 50 years.  First built starting in 1775, the road was for the first several years only traversable by horseback or on foot, but after 1796 wagons could make their way on it.  Not only was the work strenuous, but the builders had to feed themselves and fight off the occasional Indian (Native-American) raid.  Not as impressive as the other projects built with power equipment, the back-breaking labor and hardships endured by the builders is as impressive as any other project.  The Wilderness Road was made more or less obsolete by the National Road in 1818.

3. Trans-Continental Railroad.

Built from 1863 to 1869, this railway ran from Iowa where it intersected with the rail system of the eastern half of the US to San Francisco on California’s Pacific Coast.  The first such railway that spanned a continent, the driving of the “Golden Spike” on May 10, 1869 symbolically completing the railroad is a proud day in American history.  Built by the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroads, thousands of freed slaves (African-Americans) and Chinese immigrants contributed to the long days of hard labor without rest while construction crossed rivers, mountains, valleys and deserts.  No longer would settlers have to brave the dangers of a wagon train or a ship ride all the way around South America to get from one coast to the other.

2. Interstate Highway System.

Called The Dwight D. Eisenhower Interstate Highway System as Ike was president in 1956 when the project was authorized and construction started, over 47,000 miles of limited access highway criss-cross the US.  Still under construction, this ongoing project will probably be worked on until the end of civilization.  Cracked fact: The Interstate Highway System took its inspiration from the German Autobahn built 20 years earlier.  Extra Cracked fact: This highway system is not the biggest in the world.  The Chinese have that distinction!  About one fourth of all miles driven by Americans are on the Interstates.

1. Panama Canal.

Opened in 1914, the US built the Panama Canal with an eye toward shifting its Atlantic and Pacific fleets back and forth as needed in time of war.  Of course, the tremendous savings for cargo ships to transit the 48 mile long canal instead of having to go all the way around South America was also a consideration.  Others had tried and failed, because although it looks easy when looking at a World Map, in reality the mountains and rocks and especially disease carried by mosquitoes and poor drinking water made the project extremely difficult. Plus, the US had to create the country of Panama in order to get the rights to build the canal!  In 1977, President Carter signed a treaty with Panama returning the Canal Zone and the canal to Panama on December 31, 1999.  Although after World War II, giant warships and oil tanker ships were too big for the canal, bigger locks are currently under construction to accommodate larger ships.


Great Construction Projects in America