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COMMENT: Heroic engineering stories can inspire

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By: Bronwen Parsons
2012-10-01

Awards programs are intended to impress and inspire. (It’s true they often disappoint as well, especially those of us who receive the dreaded “thank you for entering, but unfortunately . . .” letters.)

Hopefully young engineers who read the following pages about the challenges and triumphs of the projects that won 2012 Canadian Consulting Engineering Awards (see p. 24 ff.) will be encouraged and driven in their own work similarly to strive beyond the norm.

For true inspiration, however, there can’t be a better – or at least a more interesting and entertaining – read for young engineers than Bill Bryson’s book, At Home (Anchor, 2010). Though the book’s subtitle is “A Short History of Private Life,” Bryson uses domesticity as just the starting block for an encyclopaedic historical tour of everything remotely related to construction and buildings, not to mention the health sciences, agriculture, food, dressing habits ... you name it.

Along the way from prehistoric dwellings at Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands, to Monticello in Virginia and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Bryson covers such ground as the invention of bricks, cement and other materials, of how windows, chimneys and staircases began to be used, and on a larger scale, how massive constructions like the Crystal Cathedral, the Erie Canal and London’s sewage infrastructure came about.

The latter is among the most inspiring of Bryson’s tales in showing how heroic engineering has transformed our lives. By the mid-19th century London’s drains were overwhelmed and the Thames became a “dense, goopy sludge that wouldn’t wash away.” After a particularly hot and dry summer in 1858 known as “The Great Stink,” an engineer named Joseph Bazalgette came to the rescue. This elfin-sized figure with a huge curling moustache led a work that resulted in 1,200 miles of brick tunnels being inserted into the metropolis.

Bazalgette “brilliantly exceeded every expectation,” says Bryson. In constructing the sewer the engineer managed to create the Chelsea, Albert and Victoria embankments. He made room for an Underground tube line, gas and utilities, and a new road above. The Thames could now flow much more freely, and the waste of three million people was carried to huge outfalls on the city’s eastern edge. Too bad that 20 years later in 1878 a pleasure boat (the Princess Alice) collided with another boat and sank just at the point where the pipes disgorged, and 700 people drowned in the sewage.

Beside these fascinating anecdotes that Bryson throws at us from every page (would that engineering reports could borrow his talents), what really comes across from his book is how important individual engineers are in getting things done -- not just the great and famous, but also lesser known individuals as well. Through sheer acts of will they designed and invented structures that have benefited the health and welfare of millions. (See Professor Ron Britton’s thoughts on heroic engineers of the past, too, p. 22.)

We live in an age where infrastructure projects are stalled at every turn --- witness the gas turbine plants cancelled in Toronto recently. But hearing how engineers have struggled and persevered, sometimes at enormous personal cost, to do what they had to, can be an inspiration – and a delight – for us all.Bronwen Parsons

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