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History’s big digs

Many of engineering’s grandest feats wouldn’t have made it off the drawing board but for a crucial permit or decree. In Building the World: An Encyclopedia of the Great Engineering Projects in History, Frank Davidson, a retired senior research associate at MIT, and Kathleen Lusk Brooke chronicle 41 such projects–from the Taj Mahal to the Brooklyn Bridge–and reproduce the original documents that greenlighted them.

Building The World: An Encyclopedia of the Great Engineering Projects in History By Frank Davidson and Kathleen Lusk Brooke Greenwood Press, 2006, $199.95

Sometimes identifying those documents is simple: a single order from Czar Alexander III initiated construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. But just the environmental-impact statement for Boston’s Big Dig project to bury part of ­I‑93 spans thousands of pages, to say nothing of the paperwork needed to get local and federal officials on board.

“We were looking for a smoking gun,” says Lusk Brooke, managing director of the Center for the Study of Success, a consulting firm in West Stockbridge, MA, “the one agreement that made it possible for the project to come to life.”

That’s why you won’t find the making of Egypt’s Great Pyramid in this two-volume reference encyclopedia: King Khufu’s original decree has yet to be found. Likewise for the Great Wall of China. What the authors do include are compelling stories of documented macro-engineering projects, many of which cost at least $15 billion in today’s dollars and commanded the bulk of a region’s human and natural resources over a long time.

Each chapter of Building the World details the history, cultural context, planning, execution, and historical importance of a single project, starting with a bit of trivia. A postage stamp, for example, helped determine the location of the Panama Canal, which had been slated for Nicaragua. Just before the U.S. Congress voted to authorize the building site, President Roosevelt’s public-­relations advisors sent each senator a Nicaraguan stamp depicting the country’s massive volcano, a national landmark 20 miles from the planned canal site. The Senate, seeing a possible liability, voted to relocate the canal to Panama.

Many of the projects described in the encyclopedia came about through similar twists of fate, and the authors ably and concisely tell those stories. ­Davidson, who coördinated MIT’s Macro-­Engineering Research Group from 1970 until the 1990s and cofounded the Channel Tunnel Study Group, hopes Building the World will spark interest in future large-scale engineering projects in the U.S. and abroad.

“We’ve been very conservative in this book, because we wanted to stick with things that really happened,” he says. “But a whole other book could be written on how big engineering could help us out [in the future].” He notes that the U.S. rail system’s technology has been far surpassed in Europe and Japan. “I think most scientists would agree that you could have trains in evacuated tubes that would go a lot faster,” he says. “I would like to see more people, especially those in authority, getting excited about what engineering can do for us on a large scale.”

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