Panama Canal
Volume 1: Chapter 22
Book Description

"The Will Of An Epoch Translated Into Space"

- Mies van der Rohe

From the Preface:

This first encyclopedia of great engineering projects is a pioneering and necessarily selective presentation of macro-engineering as a key element in the building, maintenance, and expansion of civilization. While readers will be familiar with a number of these wonders of the world, this is the first time their founding documents have been made available in one publication. We have all seen photos of the Taj Mahal, but how many of us have read the real estate agreement?

Comprehensive Overview of Selected Projects

The scope of the current volume is admittedly vast - from the wide-ranging achievenments of ancient China, Greece, and Arabia to modern satellite communications systems and voyages to the moon. The selection criteria for inclusion hinged on the survival of the founding document in each case (the editors ardently hope that archaeologists will eventually unearth an original decree that ordered the building of the Great Pyramid). However, this encyclopedia is intended to be much more than just these documents. Our goal is to provide the reader with a greater understanding of the role such structures have played not just in the transformation of the physical world, but in the growth and development of societies and cultures. Thus, we have included lengthy examinations of the cultural background of the project, the planning and building stages, and the historical importance of the structure. We also provide sources for further exploration with references to books, articles, and websites. Where relevant, we have included cultural works inspired by these marvels of engineering; Verdi's Aida was written as a tribute to the Suez Canal and is now available on the Internet. One can hear the great opera while reading about the equally dramatic story of the Suez Canal itself.

Macro-Engineering Complexity At Work

What, precisely, do we mean by macro-engineering? The word connotes the largest and most complex technical projects that can be accomplished in any given period of history. It follows that such enterprises characteristically involve an immense call on resources of all kinds: manpower, finance, materials, energy, and statecraft. And there are substantial impacts on the environment, society, culture, and the economy. There is necessarily an element of organizational and technical complexity.

The editors have had personal connections with large engineering projects. Frank P. Davidson's first book was published by Harvard University Press when he was still an undergraduate. He was the American co-founder, in 1957, of the Channel Tunnel Study Group. In 1970, he was appointed head of the Macro-Engineering Research Group of the School of Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a post he held for more than 25 years. From 1974 to 1976, Davidson and Lusk Brooke taught "Failure of Human Systems" at the School of Engineering and MIT, followed by tandem courses in "Failure" and "Success" at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute. Kathleen Lusk Brooke was one of the youngest Fulbright Scholars in history. This enabled her to spend a year of study in Iceland - precisely as the island of Surtsey emerged out of a volcanic eruption. In 1972, she was awarded a Harvard Graduate Prize Fellowship, which included a year of travel. Her itinerary took her to 41 countries including Afghanistan, India, Japan, Singapore, and most of Europe. Brought up in Chicago, Illinois, she recalls learning about macro-engineering when her family helped to build the Calumet Harbor completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Who Should Read The Book

The audience for Building The World is, inevitably, diverse. Students of national and regional history, engineering and technology, law, architecture, public art, and historic preservation, will discover information relevant to their specialties, while professionals in these and related fields will find useful and interesting structured information. Government leaders, diplomats, and planners will join social scientists in pondering past accomplishments as a prologue to the proliferation of large-scale technical projects that stretch the mind (one could cite Robert Goddard's design for maglev trains operating at supersonic velocities). Scholars will have ready accesss to the text of documents that launched some of the greatest achievements of human history.

Precedents For Opportunities

If there is one connecting thread among works as different as the Grand Canal of China and COMSAT, it is the combination of public and private resources. Technologies now exist that could supply plentiful energy on a scale never before contemplated; travel and transport could be designed to offer both greater safety and speed; medical care, water supplies, and communication and education systems could be optimized by knowledgeable interdisciplinary cooperation. Building The World suggests precedents for the powerful opportunities offered by macro-engineering to transform and improve the future.

Book Features
  • Detailed discussions of the most canonical macro-engineering projects in the history of the world - everything from the Aswan Dam to the "Big Dig."
  • Extensive primary source documents show how the decisions to make these structures were made and highlight the political, economic, legal, and environmental concerns and impacts of such engineering projects.
  • Rich, detailed illustration program of some 75 architectural drawings and images that document the world's most important structures.