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Posts Tagged ‘construction

“How many things have been denied one day, only to become realities the next!”*…

Electricity grids, the internet, and interstate highways are enormous in scale, yet we take them for granted

In 1603, a Jesuit priest invented a machine for lifting the entire planet with only ropes and gears.

Christoph Grienberger oversaw all mathematical works written by Jesuit authors, a role akin to an editor at a modern scientific journal. He was modest and productive, and could not resist solving problems. He reasoned that since a 1:10 gear could allow one person to lift 10 times as much as one unassisted, if one had 24 gears linked to a treadmill then one could lift the Earth… very slowly.

Like any modern academic who prizes theory above practice, he left out the pesky details: “I will not weave those ropes, or prescribe the material for the wheels or the place from which the machine shall be suspended: as these are other matters I leave them for others to find.”

You can see what Grienberger’s theoretical device looked like here.

For as long as we have had mathematics, forward-thinking scholars like Grienberger have tried to imagine the far limits of engineering, even if the technology of the time was lacking. Over the centuries, they have dreamt of machines to lift the world, transform the surface of the Earth, or even reorganise the Universe. Such “megascale engineering”  – sometimes called macro-engineering – deals with ambitious projects that would reshape the planet or construct objects the size of worlds. What can these megascale dreams of the future tell us about human ingenuity and imagination?

What are the biggest, boldest things that humanity could engineer? From planet lifters to space cannons, Anders Sandberg (@anderssandberg) explores some of history’s most ambitious visions – and why they’re not as ‘impossible’ as they seem: “The ‘megascale’ structures that humans could one day build.”

* Jules Verne (imagineer of many megascale projects)

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As we think big, we might send very carefully measured birthday greetings to (the other noteworthy) John Locke; he was born on this date in 1792. A geologist, surveyor, and scientist, he invented tools for surveyors, including a surveyor’s compass, a collimating level (Locke’s Hand Level), and a gravity escapement for regulator clocks. The electro-chronograph he constructed (1844-48) for the United States Coast Survey was installed in the Naval Observatory, in Washington, in 1848. It improved determination of longitudes, as it was able to make a printed record on a time scale of an event to within one one-hundredth of a second. When connected via the nation’s telegraph system, astronomers could record the time of events they observed from elsewhere in the country, by the pressing a telegraph key. Congress awarded him $10,000 for his inventions in 1849.

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“They swore by concrete. They built for eternity.”*…

 

concrete dam

The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, China– the largest concrete structure in the world

 

In the time it takes you to read this sentence, the global building industry will have poured more than 19,000 bathtubs of concrete. By the time you are halfway through this article, the volume would fill the Albert Hall and spill out into Hyde Park. In a day it would be almost the size of China’s Three Gorges Dam. In a single year, there is enough to patio over every hill, dale, nook and cranny in England.

After water, concrete is the most widely used substance on Earth. If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world with up to 2.8bn tonnes, surpassed only by China and the US.

The material is the foundation of modern development, putting roofs over the heads of billions, fortifying our defences against natural disaster and providing a structure for healthcare, education, transport, energy and industry.

Concrete is how we try to tame nature. Our slabs protect us from the elements. They keep the rain from our heads, the cold from our bones and the mud from our feet. But they also entomb vast tracts of fertile soil, constipate rivers, choke habitats and – acting as a rock-hard second skin – desensitise us from what is happening outside our urban fortresses.

Our blue and green world is becoming greyer by the second. By one calculation, we may have already passed the point where concrete outweighs the combined carbon mass of every tree, bush and shrub on the planet. Our built environment is, in these terms, outgrowing the natural one. Unlike the natural world, however, it does not actually grow. Instead, its chief quality is to harden and then degrade, extremely slowly.

All the plastic produced over the past 60 years amounts to 8bn tonnes. The cement industry pumps out more than that every two years. But though the problem is bigger than plastic, it is generally seen as less severe. Concrete is not derived from fossil fuels. It is not being found in the stomachs of whales and seagulls. Doctors aren’t discovering traces of it in our blood. Nor do we see it tangled in oak trees or contributing to subterranean fatbergs. We know where we are with concrete. Or to be more precise, we know where it is going: nowhere. Which is exactly why we have come to rely on it…

Solidity is a particularly attractive quality at a time of disorientating change. But – like any good thing in excess – it can create more problems than it solves…

Another entry for the “any solution can become the next problem” file: Jonathan Watts on the many ways that concrete’s benefits can mask enormous dangers to the planet, to human health – and to culture itself: “Concrete: the most destructive material on Earth.”

* Gunter Grass

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As we muse on materials, we might recall that it was on this date in 1844 that Linus Yale patented the “safe door lock” (U.S. patent no. 3,630), the first modern “pin tumbler lock.”

yale-door-lock-patent-1844 source

 

Written by LW

June 13, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Cathedrals are unfinished. It is just the nature of the beast.”*…

 

St John

 

Why do cathedrals take so long to build? Because the finish line is besides the point. Cathedrals are so compelling because they make visible the continued commitment that every building, city, and institution requires of their participants if they are to survive. Cathedral building ritualizes construction; they are compelling because they are never finished…

Cathedrals are distinct from typical megaprojects in a very important way: an unfinished Cathedral is by no means a failure.

As Dr. Atif Ansar, a professor in major project management at Oxford, frames it, most infrastructure projects (the dams and bridges that are focus of Ansar’s research) are binary. They are done, or not; a 99% complete bridge is not very useful. Cathedrals, one the other hand, are not binary. The aspiration may be much larger, but in essence, a single room could act as a cathedral. Salisbury cathedral took a full century to build, but services commenced almost immediately in a temporary wooden chapel. At St. John the Divine, the congregation used the crypt for the first services in 1899, just seven years after construction commenced. Cathedrals, Ansar posits, are accretive – they gain value as they are built, “like a beehive.” Accretive buildings pose a challenge for the iron triangle, because the scope is, by nature, open-ended; the project will never be complete.

Accretive projects are everywhere: Museums, universities, military bases – even neighborhoods and cities. Key to all accretive projects is that they house an institution, and key to all successful institutions is mission. Whereas scope is a detailed sense of both the destination and the journey, a mission must be flexible and adjust to maximum uncertainty across time. In the same way, an institution and a building are often an odd pair, because whereas the building is fixed and concrete, finished or unfinished, an institution evolves and its work is never finished…

A consideration of construction (and on-going maintenance) as a way of being: “Building a Cathedral.”

[This piece is via a newsletter, “The Prepared,” that your correspondent highly recommends.]

* Tour guide, St, John the Divine, Morningside Heights, N.Y.

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As we take the long view, we might recall that it was on this date in 1891 that Carnegie Hall was officially opened, with an orchestral performance conducted by Pyotr Tchaikovsky.  First know simply as “Music Hall,” the venue was formally named for it’s funder, Andrew Carnegie, in 1893.

Q: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

A: Practice, practice practice…

Carnegie Hall in 1895

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Carnegie Hall today

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Written by LW

May 5, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Why were Europeans, rather than Africans or Native Americans, the ones to end up with guns, the nastiest germs, and steel?”*…

 

steel

Oil painting by E.F. Skinner showing steel being produced by the Bessemer Process at Penistone Steel Works, South Yorkshire. Circa 1916

 

The story of steel begins long before bridges, I-beams, and skyscrapers. It begins in the stars.

Billions of years before humans walked the Earth—before the Earth even existed—blazing stars fused atoms into iron and carbon. Over countless cosmic explosions and rebirths, these materials found their way into asteroids and other planetary bodies, which slammed into one another as the cosmic pot stirred. Eventually, some of that rock and metal formed the Earth, where it would shape the destiny of one particular species of walking ape.

On a day lost to history, some fortuitous humans found a glistening meteorite, mostly iron and nickel, that had barreled through the atmosphere and crashed into the ground. Thus began an obsession that gripped the species. Over the millennia, our ancestors would work the material, discovering better ways to draw iron from the Earth itself and eventually to smelt it into steel. We’d fight over it, create and destroy nations with it, grow global economies by it, and use it to build some of the greatest inventions and structures the world has ever known…

The story of the emperor of alloys: “The entire history of steel.”

* Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel

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As we celebrate strength, we might recall that it was on this date in 1867 that F. Joseph Monier launched a (then-)new use for steel: a gardener in Paris, he received the first patent on reinforced concrete (which he used to create stronger garden tubs, beams and posts).  Monier had found that the tensile weakness of plain concrete could be overcome if steel rods were embedded in a concrete member… and in so doing created a key material that would be used in skyscrapers, bridges, and much of what we now take for granted as the infrastructure of modern life.

Joseph_Monier source

 

Written by LW

July 16, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Life is a highway”*…

 

In the beginning, the Lincoln Highway was more an idea than a highway. But it was a very powerful idea.

On its dedication—Halloween, 1913—the towns and cities along the 3,300-mile route erupted in what the San Francisco Chronicle called“spontaneous expressions of gratification”—a wave of municipal celebrations animated by “the spirit of the great national boulevard.” The governor of Wyoming declared a day of “old-time jollification … and general rejoicing” that included, in a town called Rawlings, the erection of an enormous pyramid of wool. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, residents enjoyed a festive shower of locally made Quaker Oats.

The Lincoln Highway, which ran from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco, gets credit as the first transcontinental road of the automobile age, but it was no highway in the modern sense; when it was dedicated, it was more like a loosely affiliated collection of paved, gravel, stone, and dirt paths, some recently trailblazed through the trackless rural West. Its boosters—a collection of auto industry execs and ex-politicians led by an auto-parts entrepreneur named Carl Fisher—were gifted promoters, and they successfully sold America on the notion that a sea-to-shining-sea motorway could both unite the nation and sell a lot of cars…

Head on down the road with CityLab On The Road.

* Tom Cochrane

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As we put the top down, we might spare a thought for Gebhard Jaeger; he died on this date in 1959.  An inventor, engineer, and manufacturer, he designed and patented the first cement mixer in 1905, then went on to add other patents (including, in 1928, the mixer truck) and build a successful manufacturing company equipping the suppliers who served road builders and construction contractors through the road and building construction booms of the 20th century.

From American Builder (March 1925)

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Written by LW

September 11, 2017 at 1:01 am

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