In Dreams of Iron and Steel (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), Deborah Cadbury tells the stories of seven great works that cover over a century of engineering history. Originally published in Great Britain as Seven Wonders of the Industrial World, the book was a companion to a BBC television series. The projects covered vary widely from a sewer built under a metropolis to a bridge that towered above the skyline of its day.
The oldest of these (still standing like all but one of the other projects) is the Bell Rock lighthouse. The Bell Rock sank many ships that sought shelter from North Sea storms in Scotland’s Firth of Forth. Robert Stevenson, grandfather of author Robert Louis Stevenson, designed and oversaw the construction of a tower on it. The rock was a formidable construction site. It sat eleven miles from land. High tide covered it with as much as 16 feet of water. Low tide exposed an area only 250 by 130 feet. Yet Stevenson and his men built a 100-foot, stone tower on it. They did it 200 years ago.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, several wonders were built almost at once. The Great Eastern, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was twice the size of any other ship. Though a commercial failure, it set the standard for the next generation of ships.
Brunel launched his ship into a dirty and diseased Thames. Joseph Bazalgette sought to make the river safer for London residents. He built sewers under an ancient city that had grown to 2.5 million people and sprawled over 80 square miles.
In the American West, rival firms raced across the continent to build a railroad that would unite a nation recovering from civil war. In New York, John and Washington Roebling tackled the broad East River with their Brooklyn Bridge. They risked their lives and reputations on the longest span of the day and a material untested in bridges—steel.
The twentieth century inaugurated bigger feats. First proposed in 1879 by Vicomte Ferdinand de Lesseps of France, builder of the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal defeated most of those tried to build it. Even the United States poked at the mountains in futility until John Stevens, a railroad engineer, upgraded the infrastructure and equipment. When Stevens left the canal, a frustrated Theodore Roosevelt put military officers in charge. Lieutenant Colonel George Goethels, an engineer with extensive lock and dam experience, saw the canal through to its completion shortly before World War I.
The final project, America’s “damn big dam”, was build during the Depression. Hoover Dam was huge and constructed under difficult conditions. But construction engineer Frank “Hurry up” Crowe pushed and planned to get it done early and under budget.
Cadbury treats each project separately. However, they are linked by common elements.
Tragedy and setbacks touched each one. Thousands of men, usually poor laborers and sometimes children, were killed or injured to make these huge structures. They were beset by lack of financing, reluctance to try new methods and materials, bankrupt contractors, political opposition, corruption, greed, prejudice, and other human imperfections.
At their best, these engineers and their wonders are linked by the same qualities that appear in the best of engineering today. They had a vision to make people safer, healthier, richer, and freer. They created solutions to immense problems.
Robert Stevenson’s triumph at Bell Rock won the confidence of the Northern Lighthouse Board. It also launched an association between the Stevenson family and Scottish lighthouses that lasted four generations. During their tenures in the office of engineer for the board, Stevenson and his sons dominated the design, construction, and operation of the lights. Bella Bathurst tells their story in The Lighthouse Stevensons (New York: HarperCollins, 1999).
This book has its own kind of variety: technical, professional, and personal. It covers the construction and technology of several lighthouses, the masterpieces of Robert and his three sons. They not only built towers, but also improved their design and the design of the lamps, reflectors, optics, and mechanical systems that operated in them. One even studied the waves that assaulted their works.
It shows that engineering is more than simply design and construction. The Stevensons were also managers, fundraisers, businessmen, public servants, purchasing agents, manufacturers, contractors, and more. Their work included a broad section of what engineers do.
The book is also a biography of these four men that reveals the dynamics of the family. Robert insisted his sons join the family profession and business. Only one, David, seemed to take to it naturally. Only David’s sons filled the next generation of lighthouse Stevensons. Alan and Tom were more inclined to work in literature and the arts. Alan proved himself to be a capable engineer by building a 138-foot light at Skerryvore that could withstand the elements and exhibit a simple beauty. He became so disabled by disease, Bathurst suggests it was muscular sclerosis, that he gave up his work with the lighthouses. He managed to work irregularly as a writer. His works include and encyclopedia article on lighthouses and a translation of Greek poems. Tom shared Alan’s artistic leaning, but not his intensity and focus. He and David eventually divided the engineering work for the Northern Lights.
Not everyone is cut out to be an engineer, of course. As Robert Louis Stevenson said about his internship in the profession, “He is a wise youth, to be sure, who can balance one part of genuine life against two parts of drudgery between four walls and for the sake of one, manfully accept the other.” But some managed to catch what Marion Allen, a laborer on the Hoover Dam, called constructitis. “Sometimes one thinks he is cured,” said Allen, “only to have a relapse when he goes by fresh concrete or catches the smell of fresh sawdust from new lumber. Anyone with this affliction has to start construction of some kind, even of only to dig a hole and fill it up again.”
This review previously appeared at Infra Consulting LC.