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Dreams of Iron and Steel

Posted by joeabbott on October 19, 2011

imageMy mother bought me a book for my last birthday … about 11 months ago … and I just finished it this past week. For a long time it sat below the other books on my “must read” list but once I picked it up, it was a constant, although quick, companion. The full title of this book by Deborah Cadbury is

Dreams of Iron and Steel: Seven Wonders of the Modern Age, From the Building of the London Sewers to the Panama Canal

As you can see, that’s quite a mouthful. And, in addition to having an exceptionally long title, the book is superlative in many ways.

Dreams details seven engineering wonders built in the 1800s, all but one surviving today, and celebrates not only the technical genius of the construction, but the singularity of their creators. While I won’t dwell overlong on the book, per se, I do want to touch on the seven projects detailed in the book and how they caught my eye. Guess you can’t take the engineer out of the boy!

The Great Eastern

imageI first read about The Great Eastern in a long-ago copy of the Smithsonian. I did a recent search but was only able to bring up this wan copy of the original. I’m not sure who wrote the original article I read, but it was excellent and sparked my imagination. Still, I recalled little from in and it was a pleasure to re-familiarize myself with the story of the Englishman with the unlikely name Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Originally. I thought the story had something to do with the “kingdom of Brunei”, but Brunel was an engineer extraordinaire, the son of an engineer and one who shied from few challenges. Still, The Great Eastern may have been his match in being the largest ship ever built. He incorporated many novel features in the craft, including double hulls … which became the de facto model thereafter. Still, his mammoth ship seemed to hold too many innovations and was both too expensive to keep and it’s purpose as a luxury passenger craft proved wanting for customers.

But, it was a marvelous bit of engineering and a pity the old boat ended up being used for scrap not 30 years after she launched.

The Bell Rock Lighthouse


I’ve read this story twice … as I’m absolutely fascinated with the pretext: a reef off Scotland in the North Sea is under 12’ of water at high tide and 4’ above water at low tide, and is the site of so many shipwrecks that they built a lighthouse on it.

Let me repeat: they built a lighthouse on a reef that’s submerged for up to 20 hours a day!

It boggles the mind to grasp the audacity of the project. Yes, it needed to be built, but how you’d even start is a wonder. And yet, the forebearer of Robert Louis Stevenson (the author of Treasure Island) did just thated: he started (and finished) the lighthouse.

Which means he started with mooring a boat a mile off the reef, having his crew row to it at low tide, clean the reef, lay in a foundation, and build a lighthouse. Yes, it’s monumentally astounding. Moreso when you realize they only built during the “nice” summer months.

Even under those constraints, it was built in three years. Yes, it was 50% over-budget when it was completed but a lighthouse built over 200 years ago is still standing. And has never required replacement or modification.

So, in the annals of engineering marvels, this is an example of one of the finest efforts I’ve read about. It made some of the other feats noted in the book seem pedestrian.

The Brooklyn Bridge

imageWithout knowing much about the Brooklyn Bridge, I’d still heard tales of the Roebling’s who’d built it. The father who started and died, his son who carried on but ultimately got the “bends” while working in the caissons on the footings, and then the son’s wife who managed affairs for the bed-ridden son.

Yimageup, I’d read about these details elsewhere but Dreams pulled all the threads together and wove a fantastic story and then some.

John Goebel started the project but suffered tetanus after having his foot crushed while taking a ferry across the East River (where the Brooklyn Bridge now stands); before dying he put his son, Washington Goebel … an able engineer … in charge of the project.

While working on the foundation, Washington suffered “caisson disease” … which we now know to be “the bends”; an illness that occurs when you are working in a high pressure environment and decompress to quickly. Dissolved gases in the blood stream will form bubbles that will invariably cause pain, paralysis, and even death. In the case of Washington Goebel, he suffered debilitating physical damage and was only able to supervise the project using a telescope from a nearby apartment and poring over the engineering details in a silent and darkened room. His wife, Emily, stepped in to supervise on-site and act as go-between.

There’s a lot more about the engineering and applied science that went into build the towers and stringing the suspension decking, and I’ve walked the bridge length from Manhattan to Brooklyn and back. It’s a true wonder and the only marvel documented in Dreams that I’ve touched.

The London Sewers

A lot can be said about the London Sewers and Ms. Cadbury did just that. And yet, I won’t dwell on it for fear of some scatological pun that might enter into this otherwise upstanding post.

London was stinky and in need of a way to “flush” the filth from the city (ooo … that’s very close to being a pun). Enter Joseph Bazalgette who came up with the plan, executed, and made the London sewer system a marvel of the industrial world.

And while I feel badly to give the story here such a trivial treatment, I can only encourage you to read the book and enjoy it firsthand.

The Transcontinental Railroad

This was a story I didn’t really get into. A couple of scheming, scamming firms took advantage of Lincoln’s aim to further Manifest Destiny while lining their pockets with government money and built a railroad across the nation.

Yes, impressive. Yes, rich and deeply layered (the stories about the treatment of the Chinese workers are heartbreaking). And, yes, an essential part of our history. But it was just too full of men taking advantage of other men for me to like too much. And, there was scant little about the engineering. Sure, a couple stories about hard-to-dig tunnels, and one tantalizing piece about a tunnel being dug from two directions that ultimately was just 2” off center when they met (how’d they do that??), but not enough.

The Panama Canal

imageThe story on the Panama Canal was another to love. Lots of details on the engineering and the heartbreak of this monumental project.

I think the only things I knew about the Panama Canal was that 1) it was started by the French but finished by the US, and 2) the trivia piece that, when traveling through the Canal, you are actually moving from West to East (find a map and verify!).

So, the details in Dreams were wonderful to read. They put into place a bunch of stuff that I never knew and filled in the gaps on that whole “finished by the US” bit. The pictures included were awesome (but I wasn’t able to find any online to include in this post).

The story is wildly compressed as:

Ferdinand de Lesseps, the engineer behind the Suez Canal, thought to knock out another success for old France by stepping up to dig a trough through Panama. He started, mostly directing from France, saw nearly 22,000 workers die from malaria during his attempt (yes … twenty-two thousand), and the French surrendered the project.

Some four years after the French abandoned the plan, Teddy Roosevelt helped Panama through military means, and then established the plan for the US to build/finish the Canal. One of the chief success factors in building the canal was the suppression of malaria due in a large part to Dr. W.C. Gorgas. He identified mosquitoes as the carrier for the disease and understood their breeding habits. By controlling the mosquitoes, he limited deaths to the US workers to ~5600. Yes, “success” looks like less that 6000 workers dying. Note; only one man died during the construction of the Bell Rock Lighthouse.

Anyhow, we came, we built, and then (100 years later) we handed it over to Panama to administer: The Panama Canal.

The Hoover Dam

imageWhile I noted I’d touched the Brooklyn Bridge, I’ve seen the Hoover Dam and may have even touched it, too. Long ago I ventured to Las Vegas to visit my brother and took a day trip out to see the Dam. It’s a beauty.

I very much like the stone angels that grace the flag pole area by the bridge … and I think I remember more about them than the bridge itself!

But, being from MN where water is plentiful but the terrain doesn’t help much in the way of encouraging hydropower, I’d never seen a dam up close and didn’t understand how they worked for either power or water supply. The Hoover Dam trip changed that. But I digress.

It was flooding in the West that caused the Dam to be ultimately built. Dreams goes into the fascinating construction story and talks about the people behind the project. I didn’t realize it was built during the Great Depression and that people were so in need of work that they camped out by the building site and created a small town just waiting for the project to start!

As with the Transcontinental Railroad, the abuse to the workers was hard to read about. No project like the Hoover Dam had been created prior to it in terms of scale: in all, an estimated 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete was poured to create the dam! While one had to believe the conditions on the workers would have been improved if they weren’t pushed so hard the project was completed 2 years ahead of schedule, it’s hard to look back on history without being a bit judgmental.

Still, a phenomenal bit of engineering and a wonderful story. While Ms. Cadbury included a number of photos from the Hoover Dam construction, more would have been welcome for such a complex and vast project.


That’s it: seven projects built from the mid 1800’s to the early/mid-1900s. If you’re interested in engineering, the marvels of the early industrial age, or hankering for some captivating personal tales, this book has it all.

And another “thank you” to my mother for yet another welcome gift: thanks, mom!


One Response to “Dreams of Iron and Steel”

  1. Momma said

    Gee, Joe, what a great book! I’m going to get a copy of it for Uncle Joe’s birthday! Thanks for the great review! (I’ll bet the other guys in the family would also lik it.)

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