ASEE PRISM - October 2000

Author David Macaulay has extolled the marvels of engineering to more than two million readers and begining this month, he'll be reaching an even larger audience in a five part T.V. series.

By Alvin P. Sanoff

illustration courtesy of WGBH Educational FoundationDavid Macaulay has no degree in engineering. He has never built a skyscraper, designed a piece of machinery, or done any other of the hundred and one things of which engineers are capable. Yet his use of his illustrative talents to produce books such as The New Way Things Work that explain the complex concepts behind the operation of all kinds of machines has helped countless people better understand what engineers do.

Now, Macaulay is about to launch his most ambitious venture, one that is certain to warm the hearts of civil engineers everywhere. This fall he will host a five-part television series called Building Big, which will air on most PBS stations on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. throughout the month of October. Each program focuses on the construction of a different type of massive structure, starting off with bridges and then moving to domes, skyscrapers, dams and, finally, tunnels. "I want to help people understand the things that they take for granted," he explains.

The series is filled with expert engineering commentary, including Richard Bieniawski, professor of rock engineering at Pennsylvania State University, Priscilla Nelson of the National Science Foundation, Henry Petroski of Duke University, and Denis Smith of the Institute of Civil Engineers in the United Kingdom. Macaulay, who is first and foremost a man of the book, has also written and illustrated a volume that serves as a companion to the television series and bears the same title.illustration courtesy of WGBH Educational Foundation

In both the TV series and the book, Macaulay explores and explains some of the greatest engineering feats--and disasters--in history. The opening show on bridges begins with the Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879. Due to faulty design, part of the span that carried trains across the Firth of Tay in Scotland collapsed during a gale, with the loss of some 70 lives. Two engineers, John Fowler and Benjamin Baker, were called on to devise a new bridge that would withstand the forces of nature; they designed a structure with three enormous cantilevered sections and two smaller suspended sections. The bridge, Macaulay explains, not only had to be strong, "it also had to look strong" to rebuild the confidence of train passengers. The engineers accomplished that, says Macaulay, creating "a structure so strong that the wind could never blow it down." But the bridge, like so many construction projects, turned out to be more expensive than anticipated and so has rarely been copied.

In the opening show of Building Big, Macaulay devotes substantial time to the construction of the Golden Gate and Brooklyn Bridges, and the engineering challenges that were involved. Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge--started by John Roebling, who turned it over to his son Washington in 1869 shortly before his death--proved to be a nightmarish project. It took its toll both on those who excavated the ground beneath the East River working in an underwater caisson--a bottomless airtight wooden box filled with compressed air--and on Washington Roebling himself. He, like many of the workmen, developed a severe case of "the bends"--nitrogen bubbles in his bloodstream--from coming in and out of the caisson without going through gradual decompression. The painful condition forced him to guide the last nine years of the project from his Brooklyn Heights apartment, where he watched the construction of the world-famous suspension bridge through a telescope.

photograph courtesy of WGBH Educational  FoundationThe building of the Golden Gate is a somewhat happier tale, though, like so many massive construction projects, one not without human cost. Twelve men died during construction of the span in the 1930s and at least 19 others would have perished if not for a safety net that had been put in place under the bridge to catch workers who otherwise would have plummeted to their death in the water. The bridge connecting San Francisco to Marin County initially was designed to be what Macaulay describes as "an ungainly combination of cantilever and suspension bridge." But, by the time the financing for the project was in place, engineers Joseph Strauss and Clifford Paine had created a design for a suspension bridge that Macaulay calls "a masterpiece of engineering technology and building efficiency."

While much of the series deals with 19th and 20th century projects, Macaulay also takes viewers back to ancient Egypt and the Sadd El Kafara Dam, to sixth century Istanbul, where Hagia Sophia, a church turned mosque turned museum, was constructed, and to ancient Rome, home to many monumental structures. He discusses how the Romans tunneled through mountains to bring aqueducts to the city, and how this "first great bridge-building culture" managed to construct seven bridges across the Tiber River by 200 A.D. Those interested in the evolution of language learn that the word "pontiff," used to describe the Pope, is rooted in the Latin word for bridge builder, "pontifex." The Pope, explains Macaulay, is like a bridge in that he is seen as someone who connects people.

Both the television series and book reflect the 53-year-old author-illustrator's lifelong interest in the building process, an interest that led him to produce such books as Cathedral, and Pyramid, and, now, Building Big. Macaulay says that in a book, unlike a television program, he can "concentrate on the nuts and bolts of how these things get built." In the book version of Building Big, for example, he shows in great detail how the Golden Gate, with its enormous cables, was constructed, while on the television series there is far more focus on the historical and human dimensions of the project.

Boyhood in Britain photograph courtesy of WGBH Educational  Foundation

Macaulay's fascination with how things are built first manifested itself during his childhood in England. As a young boy in Lancashire, he constructed elevators out of cigar boxes, string, and tape and made intricate cable-car systems using yarn. "I was fascinated with little models of things that actually worked," he recalls. When he was 11, Macaulay moved to the United States with his family and began to take an interest in drawing, in part because "it was a great way of being recognized in high school." He subsequently enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design to study architecture, but even before he received his degree in 1969 he had come to realize that being an architect would not satisfy his desire to work on projects of his own choosing. Macaulay spent the next four years searching for his niche. In 1973, he turned his talent to illustrating and writing books, focusing on a subject that he knew well--how a structure is built. Cathedral was his first book and he has never looked back. His books have sold more than two million copies in the United States alone and have been translated into a number of different languages.

photograph courtesy of WGBH Educational  FoundationIn the process of filming Building Big, one of whose national corporate sponsors is the American Society of Civil Engineers, Macaulay visited structures as diverse as the Aswan High Dam, Reims Cathedral, the Pantheon, and the Houston Astrodome. "There is a logic and common sense that underlies even the most impressive structures," he explains. "It is not magic. It is people taking the time to dismantle complex problems, to break them into small pieces, to address each of the pieces and then to put them all back together."

In examining these structures, Macaulay found that he was "knocked over by the bigness of the idea as much as by the bigness of the object." He says that "what separates building big from building ordinary is that you are in a way doing something that's never been done before."

One of the projects that excites him, a project featured in the final program in the series, is the tunnel-jacking operation that is part of Boston's much-publicized and criticized Big Dig. While critics view the project to relocate Boston's downtown elevated highways as something of a disaster because it is way over budget and years behind schedule, Macaulay sees it from a different perspective. He is fascinated by the idea of "building a four-lane highway inside a concrete box and then pushing it into the earth." He says that "it's very easy to understand what they're doing, but it's almost impossible to comprehend the scale at which they're doing it."

While unwilling to single out a particular structure as his absolute favorite, Macaulay views the Golden Gate Bridge as "an extraordinary juxtaposition of engineering and landscape." Fortunately, Macaulay is not terrified by heights, so he was able to ascend in a small elevator to the top of the bridge and look down, through a layer of fog, at the water 600 feet below. "It was," says Macaulay, "a magical experience."

Perhaps many young people watching this series will be gripped by the same magic and will find themselves drawn to engineering and the possibility that one day they, too, may be in a position to build something big.

Alvin P. Sanoff is a freelance writer
 living in suburban Washington, D.C.

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