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Engineering the History: 12 projects that changed the world

26 May 2011 2 Comments

What is engineering? Is it an art, a skill or a just a regular profession?

Either way, history taught us that through engineering, mankind is continuously breaking its inborn limits. Engineering determined leaders and nations to set up ambitious goals and to eventually surpass them. These successful results were achieved through sacrifice & hard work and they are now standing as real symbols of determination and progress.

Here are 12 of the greatest engineering projects man has ever created, that completely changed our perspective over the world:

12. The Great Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

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The three pyramids famous worldwide are located in Egypt, on the outskirts of Cairo. Egyptologists say that these amazing pieces of architecture are approximately 4,500 years old and they are currently considered the oldest monuments constructed in dressed masonry.

The Great Pyramid, the complex’s largest structure, is 756 feet long and 450 feet high. For three millenniums, it was the highest structure in the world. 2,300,000 blocks of stone, each averaging 2 ½ tons in weight were used to raise this fascinating piece of architecture. Although the methods of constructions are still uncertain, it is strongly believed that stones used in construction were quarried in the surrounding areas and then dragged on special created sledges and ramps. Egyptologists estimate that approximately 200,000 people participated in the construction of the Great Pyramid, a record that was achieved only once in our known history.

11. The Great Wall of China

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Originally built to protect the northern territories of China from invasions, the Great Wall has been rebuilt and maintained for more than 16 centuries. The wall stretches for 5,500 miles (8,851 km), including some natural defensive barriers such as hills and rivers.

Unlike many other fortifications at that time, bricks and stone were used in the construction of the Great Wall, instead of rammed earth. In the Juyongguan pass, the wall reaches 25.6 feet (7.8 meters) in height and 16.4 feet (5 meters) in width. In some other areas, the wall climbs steep slopes and is completed by watchtowers built up to 3,215 feet (980 meters) above the sea level. It is estimated that while building this amazing fortification, more than 1 million workers lost their lives.

10. The Colosseum, Rome, Italy

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This is the largest amphitheater ever built in the Roman Empire and definitely one of the greatest achievements of Roman engineering. It only took eight years to finish this amazing structure that continues to stand as Rome’s most prestigious symbol for almost 2,000 years now. With a capacity of 50,000, the Colosseum was used for gladiator contests, animal hunts, re-enactments of famous battles and dramas. During the Middle Ages, it was used as a workshop, a fortress, a quarry and even a Christian shrine. Although it was affected by fires, earthquakes and many more forms of natural degradation, the Colosseum is still standing.

Being 615 feet (189 meters) long and 510 feet (156 meters) wide, the outer wall of the Colosseum is estimated to have required at least 100,000 cubic meters of travertine stone. For such a colossal structure, the architects of the Colosseo used access methods similar to those used by the modern stadiums nowadays: more than 80 entrances at ground level were designed and each one was numbered, as was each staircase.

9. The Taj Mahal, Agra, India

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This is truly the 17th century ideal fusion of between architecture, engineering and art. The Taj Mahal was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in the memory of his third wife. The central structure of the complex and the most popular piece is made of marble with a height of 115 feet (35 meters). The top of the dome features a lotus design, which accentuates its height. This is also emphasized by tall decorative spires that extend from the edges of the base walls.

The central dome is surrounded by four smaller domed kiosks that replicate the center design and allow sunlight to aluminate the interior. The dome and the kiosks are topped by gilded finals. 130 feet (40 meters) tall minarets square the structure. One of the main concerns in those times was the fear of high structure collapsing. That’s why the minarets were built slightly outside the plinth, so that in the event of falling down, they won’t fall over the dome. In all, 28 precious stones were inlaid into the marble walls, including sapphire, crystal, turquoise and many more.

8. The Trans-Siberian Railway, Russia

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This is the longest railway in the world, connecting Moscow with Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East, at the Sea of Japan. It was built in record time from 1891 to 1916, under the rule of Tsar Nicholas II. The Trans-Siberian Railway is 5,753 miles (9,259 kilometers) long, spanning over seven time zones. A train trip from Moscow to Vladivostok now takes eight days to complete.

The design of the route took ten years, since this railway was vital for Siberia’s economical development. Still, the project ignored many of the existing cities that demanded transport and many major Siberian cities remained unconnected. The workers involved in the project were mainly Russian soldiers and convicted laborers. The electrification of the line started in 1929 and finalized 80 years later. The construction of the line boosted the Siberian agriculture and its benefits continue to affect the Russian economy: 30% of the country’s exports travel on this line.

7. The Panama Canal

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The Panama Canal is a 48 mile (77 kilometers) long ship canal that connects the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. The canal was built from 1904 to 1914 and it was one of the most difficult engineering projects ever pioneered. The opening of the canal had a tremendous impact upon shipping between the two oceans, since all the boats en route from one ocean to the other did not have to route around the notorious Cape Horn anymore, America’s southernmost point.

Besides excavating immense volumes of earth, the project involved a serious upgrade of the Panama railway system, so that heavy-duty locomotives and railroad cars could be used to improve the efficiency of the work. During the construction period, the process of moving the land become so well-organized, that at one point 160 loaded dirt trains were used daily – that is one train leaving about every one and a half minutes of the day. More than 60,000,000 pounds (roughly 27,215,500 kilograms) of dynamite was used when constructing the canal. Since its inauguration, a total of 815,000 vessels have passed through the canal, making it one of the leading areas on Earth in terms of naval traffic.

6. The Hoover Dam, Arizona/Nevada, USA

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Once known as Boulder Dam, The Hoover Dam is a concrete arch-gravity dam built on the Colorado River, between 1931 and 1936. The dam is a marvel of engineering, given that never before such a huge concrete structure was built in such a torrid environment. Its generators continue to provide power for three states: Nevada, Arizona and California and more than 1 million people visit the dam each year.

The colossal structure is 726 feet (221 meters) high and 1,244 feet (379 meters) long at the top. Also, it is 660 feet (200 meters) thick at the base, narrowing up to 45 feet (14 meters) at the top. For its erection, a new model city was built in the desert, near the dam site (eventually known as Boulder City, Nevada) and a railway was constructed to connect Las Vegas with the new town. Preparations also included the creation of four diversion tunnels, in order to redirect the Colorado River from the construction site. Each tunnel was 56 feet (17 meters) in diameter and their combined length reached 3 miles (5 kilometers). A total of 3,250,000 cubic yards (2,480,000 cubic meters) of concrete and 16,000 people were used to build the Hoover Dam, the most ambitious infrastructure project in the period of the Great Depression.

5. Burj Khalifa, Dubai, UAE

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This is currently the tallest man-made structure ever built, measuring 2,717 feet (828 meters). The tower’s chief architect was Adrian Smith, while the chief structural engineer position was occupied by Bill Baker. The cost of the whole project raised up to US $1,5 billion and the skyscraper was officially opened on January 4th, 2010.

Burj Khalifa has 163 habitable floors, summing a floor area of 3,331,100 sq feet (309,473 sq meters). The tower has a Y-shaped design, to maximize outward views and inward natural light. The base structure consists of three elements arranged around a central core. For better stability, setbacks occur as the tower reaches toward the sky, creating 27 terraces. The core element emerges into a 4,000 tonnes steel spire, which also houses communications equipment.

A new structural system was developed by the architects and the engineers for the extraordinary height of the tower. The so-called buttressed core is formed by a hexagonal core reinforced by three buttresses that form the Y-shape. Moreover, architects rotated the building 120 degrees from its original position, in order to reduce stress from the existing winds.

4. The Channel Tunnel, France/England

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The Channel Tunnel is a 31.4 miles (50.5 kilometers) undersea tunnel that connects Folkestone, in the United Kingdom with Coquelles, in Northern France. The tunnel reaches up to 250 ft (75 meters) deep, and seven years after its opening it still possesses the largest underwater portion of any tunnel in the world: 23.5 miles (37.9 kilometers). It is now used by high-speed Eurostar passenger trains, Eurotunnel Shuttle vehicle transport and freight trains.

The tunnel consists of three bores: two 25 feet (7.6 meter) diameter rain tunnels, 94 feet (30 meters) apart, with a 16 feet (4.8 meter) diameter service tunnel in between. Special tunnel boring machines or “moles” were used to dig the tunnels. Works started concomitantly on the French and on the British sides and a total of eleven such pieces of equipment were used. Taking in consideration special geology studies, the moles start cutting through the chalk marl layer. Special impermeability and pressure problems need to be addressed during the construction process, so that engineers designed a linking system between the tunnels that manages the pressure changes with the train movement. The construction of the tunnel brought Europe closer to Britain and standing as a proof, since its opening, the Channel Tunnel has been crossed by 17 million people.

3. Kansai Airport, Osaka, Japan

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The Kansai International Airport is the first airport ever to be built on a 100% man-created island. It was built as a solution to the old airport, which was located in a highly-populated area, leaving no room for further expansions. Having no alternative on the existing grounds, the engineers had to come up with a plan for building a new island in the Osaka Bay, which should overcome the risks of earthquakes and typhoons.

The construction of the 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) long and 1.6 miles (2.5 kilometers) wide island took 10 million work hours over three years. 10,000 workers and eighty ships were used to excavate 21,000,000 cubical meters of landfill. The whole project became the most expensive civil engineering work in the modern history, with a total cost of US$ 20 billion.

In its short existence, the airport has remained intact after a 6.8 earthquake with the epicenter located only 12 miles (20 kilometers) away and after a typhoon with wind speeds up to 200 km/h.

2. Palm Islands, Dubai, UAE

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The Palm Islands (otherwise known as the Atlantis) are an artificial archipelago in Dubai. Following the shape of a palm tree, the construction of the island started in 2001 and is planned to take 10-15 years to complete. After the completion, the new territory will add 320 miles (520 kilometers) of beaches to the city of Dubai.

The outer edge of the archipelago is actually a 10.5 miles (17 kilometers) long rock breakwater, made of over 7 million tons of rock. Creating the inner arc-shaped islands requires a process known as rainbowing, when the sand is sprayed by some dredging ships. The Palm Jumeirah, the archipelago’s smallest island, represents the tree trunk with 16 fonds. In the first phase of the development, 4,000 villas and apartments will be created on Palm Jumeirah. Furthermore, 32 hotels will be constructed on the island, which will eventually feature 78 kilometers of beaches. The project includes two other palm islands, Palm Deira and Palm Jebel Ali, considerably larger than the initial island.

1. Qingdao Haiwan Bridge, Qingdao, China

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The Qingdao Haiwan Bridge connects the city of Qingdao in Eastern China with the Huangdao suburbs, across the waters of Jiaozhou Bay. Opened in 2011, it currently is the longest over water bridge in the world, with a total length of 26.4 miles (42.5 kilometers). Building this bridge cut the distance between the two cities by 19 miles (31 kilometers), reducing the travel time by 20 minutes (at a speed of 80 kilometers per hour).

The bridge `took four years and the daily work of 10,000 employees to build. It is designed as a six-lane expressway that will be resistant to earthquakes up to 8.0 on the Richter magnitude scale, typhoons and impacts of a 300,000 tons vessel. The construction of this immense cable-stayed bridge was possible with the use of 450,000 tons of steel and 2.3 million cubic meters of concrete. The bridge is nearly 2 miles (5 kilometers) longer than the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway from Louisiana, the previous structure that held the “world’s longest bridge” record.

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2 Comments »

  • Helen Butt said:

    This list is fab – am going to use it with my students tomorrow!

  • Robert Hardy said:

    Not a very good list, few of these have changed the world, the engineering examples that really change the world are usually quite modest in themselves, but have influenced others that collectively have changed the world.

    A list should perhaps include the Lighthouse at Alexandria, the Stockton to Darlington Railway, the Marc Brunel tunnel under the Thames, the first transatlantic Telephone Cable, The Home Insurance Building, Chicago, The Wright Flyer, The V2 rocket/ Spudnik 1, The first steel cable suspension bridge (several contenders, maybe The St Anthoine Bridge has the best claim).

    I’m sure plenty of people can provide other examples.

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