Monuments to Genius

An exhibit in the nation's capital showcases some of civil engineering's finest moments.

Engineering is finally getting some long-overdue recognition for the important contributions it has made to the nation. First, the PBS series “Building Big,” which extolled the marvels of engineers, aired in October and attracted millions of viewers. Now, an exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., is featuring fascinating examples of historically significant engineering and industrial works in the United States. Among the important subjects in “Monuments, Mills, and Missile Sites: Thirty Years of the Historical American Engineering Record,” are the Statue of Liberty, the platform from which the world's first manned Moon mission was launched, the site where the atomic bomb was successfully tested, and suspension bridges, canals, sugar plantations, ships, and railroads.

The exhibition is based on the work of the Historic American Engineering Record, which over the past three decades has been collecting documentary evidence, including photoraphs and drawings, of the nation's engineering marvels and industrial icons. The organization was established in 1969 when a small group of architects, engineers, and historians began examining major American industrial and engineering sites that were in danger of being destroyed.

In the 1980s, during an extensive renovation of the Statue of Liberty, HAER began creating a historical record of how Frederic Bartholdi's 151-foot-high sculpture was originally constructed. They recorded information about the sculpture's surprisingly thin exterior skin, which consists of pounded copper sheets—no thicker than coins—and the iron armature supporting them. The armature was designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, previously known for his iron bridges. The monument that bears his name, the Eiffel Tower, didn't open until 1889, five years after the Statue of Liberty.

The exhibition, which closes in Washington on May 20, is scheduled to visit various other cities, beginning with Houston.

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