Friday, September 2, 2011

Book Review: Canals and Their Architecture by Robert Harris

Harris, Robert. Canals and Their Architecture. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1969.

Water has always been an important part of human life. Drinking water is a necessity, but that is only the beginning of our uses of it. Water is also an element in agriculture, industry, transportation and commerce.

It is water’s role in transportation and commerce that Robert Harris focused on in Canals and Their Architecture. At times, artificial or modified waterways have been major means of transporting products in bulk.

Harris mentions canals from continental Europe and North America, especially the United States, but his book is mainly about the canals of Britain. This is an appropriate focus because the canal boom in Britain both fed and was fed by the Industrial Revolution that started there.

The boom began with the Duke of Bridgewater’s famous canal, construction of which began in 1760. The duke owned coalmines and wanted a cheaper way get coal to the mills and factories in Manchester. The canal was by no means an easy or inexpensive project, but it was greatly successful and the wealth put into it was regains many times over.

Bridgewater recognized the talents of millwright James Brindley, who went on to become the most prominent canal engineer of his day. Harris discussed the works of several British engineers who were successors of Brindley including Thomas Telford, John Rennie, and William Edwards.

As the title of the book suggests, it is organized mainly by the types of structures found on canals. In addition to the canal cut, Harris wrote about bridges and auqueducts, locks , tunnels, boats, buildings and unique ways of handling elevation changes on a canal route. Early canals followed the contours of the land to avoid the use of expensive and complex equipment and, where needed, were crossed by utilitarian bridges of wood or brick. As canals became straighter, and more lucrative, they added locks and other mechanisms for raising and lowering boats. The materials became more varied and complex, including stone and iron. Spectacular aqueducts carried canals over low lands. Tunnels were well-made features of canals early on because the technology for building them was readily adapted from mining.

The older canals are impressive in that so much was done with manpower and simple tools. As canals aided other industries, the improvements those industries spawned, especially in iron construction and railroads, returned to canals and the way they were made. The construction of modern canals is the work of enormous equipment.

Canals and Their Architecture includes many illustrations and photographs. These are very helpful for the laymen to see the types of structures discussed in the text, though even an engineer familiar with the terms will likely appreciate the images.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in
The Ancient Engineers by L. Sprague de Camp
Dreams of Iron and Steel by Deborah Cadbury
Water by Marq de Villiers

This review of Canals and Their Architecture by Robert Harris appears courtesy of Keenan’s Book Reviews, we’re you can reviews of other books about engineering.

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