Extreme Engineering Attempts

The ancient Greek mathematician and engineer Archimedes claimed that he could move Earth with a large lever, if only he could locate a fulcrum and a place to stand. Many centuries later Galileo was more circumspect about what engineers can do, for he recognized that what worked on a small scale did not necessarily succeed on a larger one. By then, Renaissance engineers knew that levers, like stone obelisks and wooden ships, could be scaled up only so much before they broke under their own weight. Unfortunately, what Galileo learned has not always been remembered, nor is it likely always to be respected in the new millennium.

With the introduction of iron as a structural material, it was possible for engineers not only to dream of larger and larger structures but also to realize them. The first iron bridge spanned 100 feet across the Severn River in western England. Within decades, spans exceeding 500 feet were being envisioned, and soon the railroad created the need for ever longer iron bridges.

If the Atlantic could be crossed, then why not greater expanses of sea? Brunel designed his Great Eastern steamship to be large enough to transport all the coal it would need to voyage from England to Australia. At 692 feet, the ship had to be constructed parallel to the water because the shipyard could not accommodate the conventional stern-first orientation for assembly and launching.

This pattern has repeated itself—for instance, the supersonic Concorde, first built in the mid-1970s, is a technologically sweet aircraft but has seen only limited service because its sonic boom is too disturbing residential areas around airports. Other supersonic projects have been abandoned as a result. Clearly, the designs of engineers must be more than just strong enough and fast enough; they must also be compatible with the existing physical, political and social infrastructure.

Posted 2011-01-29 and updated on Jun 08, 2011 12:27am by crisd

 Jun 08, 2011 12:27amWow! That s a really neat aswner! by Melvina
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