(Image: Robert Howlett, public domain)
Almost ten years ago the BBC produced a 7-part docudrama about the Seven Wonders of the Industrial World. These extraordinary objects and structures were engineering marvels that changed the face of the modern world during the Industrial Revolution. All but one remain in use to this day. In this article we briefly explore these seven industrial wonders, and the engineers and workers behind them.
SS Great Eastern (Launched 1858)
(Image: Parsons, public domain)
A shipbuilding marvel, SS Great Eastern was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel as the first ship entirely built out of iron. Despite its unparalleled luxury, the ship’s construction was marred accidents, financial scandal and misfortune. Some said the Great Eastern was jinxed, giving rise to an urban legend that two corpses were found inside the hull during dismantling. The story traces back to the ship’s construction, when a worker and his child apprentice mysteriously vanished.
Brooklyn Bridge, New York City (Completed 1883)
Spanning New York City’s East River, the Brooklyn Bridge was both the first steel-wire suspension bridge and the longest suspension bridge in the world when it opened. Designed by John Augustus Roebling, creating this iconic landmark was a family effort. Roebling’s son, Washington, took over construction following his death. Washington’s wife, Emily Roebling, in turn taught herself the principles of engineering when her husband’s health was ruined by decompression sickness while overseeing underwater construction.
Bell Rock Lighthouse (Completed 1810)
(Image: Ian Cowe, reproduced with permission)
Immortalised in a poem by Robert Southey, the notorious Bell Rock reef off the east coast of Scotland has wrecked ships and claimed the lives of sailors for hundreds of years. As a result, engineer Robert Stevenson designed the lighthouse that continues in service to this day, maintained by the Northern Lighthouse Board. In an incredible feat of engineering, the Bell Rock Lighthouse was designed to withstand the relentless northern sea, while at the same time housing the builders who worked on it.
London Sewerage System (Completed 1865)
During the 1850s, London was the largest city in the world, located at the heart of the British Empire, but served by a medieval sewer system that permeated the air and caused horrific cholera and typhoid epidemics. Civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette designed the ingenious London Sewerage System that would purify the city, with six interceptory sewers fed by 450 miles of main sewers and 13,000 miles of smaller local sewers. It was also served by the remarkably ornate Crossness Pumping Station (above).
Panama Canal (Completed 1914)
The 48 mile long Panama Canal is a ship canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Completed in 1914, an incredible 815,000 vessels had passed through as of 2008, but it hasn’t always been plain sailing. Early contruction attempts by Ferdinand de Lesseps, French developer of the Suez Canal, collapsed – taking the French government with it – after 22,000 men died of tropical diseases. Later U.S. efforts were ultimately successful, but the impracticality of constructing a sea-level canal meant the project was completed with locks.
Pacific Railroad, United States (Completed 1869)
Completed in 1869, the Pacific Railroad was the “First Transcontinental Railroad”, connecting the eastern and western seaboards of the United States. Started by a group of enterprising Sacramento shopkeepers, Chinese labourers laid track through the forbidding Sierra Nevada mountains, while Irish immigrants of the Union Pacific approached from the east. After six years of toil, the Pacific Railroad was complete, in a tale of corruption and success that overcame the inherent lawlessness of the Wild West.
Hoover Dam (Completed 1936)
Controvertially named after President Herbert Hoover, the immense Hoover Dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River was originally set to be named Boulder Dam. Constructed between 1931 and 1936 at the height of the Great Depression, the concrete gravity-arch structure cost $49 million and countless loss of life. More than 20,000 unemployed flocked to Nevada to work on the project, forced to accept conditions of extreme hardship. Boulder City was ultimately constructed to house the workers, as Las Vegas was too small.