Roman engineers… were astonishingly skillful. In the years just before the birth of Christ they built an underground tunnel to bring water to Bologna in Italy. The tunnel was 20 kilometres long. Hundreds of years earlier they had drained the Pontine marshes south east of Rome. In the second century A.D. they brought water to a city in what is now Syria from a source over 130 kilometres away. It had an average gradient of just 3 centimetres’ fall in every kilometre. Many kilometers of it still exist today. In several cities in Europe, Roman aqueducts still provide water from several kilometres away. The world-famous Trevi fountain in Rome is supplied by the Virgo aqueduct, 22 kilometres long and built in 19 BC. The Pantheon in Rome was built in about 126 A.D. It is the world’s first large mass-concrete dome building. It is over 40 metres high and is visited by thousands of tourists, in complete safety, every day: almost 2000 years later.
Roman engineers were not just good builders. They were also world-class surveyors. If you walk south from London Bridge today, you soon reach Kennington Park Road (the A3). As you look along it you are looking in the precise direction of the east gate of Chichester, 59.84 Roman miles from the end of London Bridge. The surveyors who first laid out that road, probably in the first century A.D., knew precisely which direction Chichester lay in. There are two major rows of hills (the North and South Downs) in between.
In about 155 A.D. Roman surveyors re-aligned a section of 82 kilometres of frontier defenses in southern Germany. The southernmost 29 kilometres ran over several heavily wooded ridges, yet none of the forts (a Roman mile apart, with turrets in between) is off the direct line between start and finish by more than 1.9 metres. That is a deviation of less than five minutes of arc (five sixtieth of a degree). The accuracy which Roman surveyors achieved was phenomenal. It was only bettered with the invention of surveying instruments with magnifying optics (such as the theodolite) in the 17th century. Yet, as far as is known, Roman surveyors did not even have an instrument for observing and copying angles directly (such as a protractor). However, by about the year 500 or so, nobody could even build in stone, let alone lay out aqueducts or build in concrete. Concrete only came back into use in the late 18th century.
They started construction on the Brooklyn Bridge 140 years ago, yesterday, 3 January 1876. General Custer and Wild Bill Hickock were both still in good health at the time.
The pressure-related malady, “the bends,” was diagnosed for the first time in the course of construction of the bridge’s pilings.
The bridge’s original design engineer, John A. Roebling, died in 1869, before construction had begun, of tetanus, contracted when his foot was crushed by an arriving ferry while he was selecting a location for the bridge.
His son, Washington Roebling, took over the project, and became disabled during the course of the project by the bends from visiting the caisson. His wife, Emily Warren Roebling, taught herself engineering and effectively took over day-to-day supervision and management of the project.
The Sunday Times Business section this week described an interesting reverse development taking place at high tech environments like Adobe, Intel, Stanford, and M.I.T.: a return to hand-ons, build-it-yourself engineering training featuring physical tools inculcating manual skills.
At Stanford, the rediscovery of human hands arose partly from the frustration of engineering, architecture and design professors who realized that their best students had never taken apart a bicycle or built a model airplane. For much the same reason, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers a class, â€œHow to Make (Almost) Anything,â€ which emphasizes learning to use physical tools effectively.
â€œStudents are desperate for hands-on experience,â€ says Neil Gershenfeld, who teaches the course.
Paradoxically, yearnings to pick up a hammer â€” or an oscilloscope â€” may deepen even as young people immerse themselves in simulated worlds. â€œPeople spend so much time in digital worlds that it creates an appetite for the physical world,â€ says Dale Dougherty, an executive at Oâ€™Reilly Media, which is based in Sebastopol, Calif., He manages a magazine, Make, that is devoted to building digital-era gear.
Fifty years ago, tinkering with gadgets was routine for people drawn to engineering and invention. When personal computers became widespread starting in the 1980s, â€œwe tended to forget the importance of physical senses,â€ says Richard Sennett, a sociologist at the London School of Economics.
Making refinements with your own hands â€” rather than automatically, as often happens with a computer â€” means â€œyou have to be extremely self-critical,â€ says Mr. Sennett, whose book â€œThe Craftsmanâ€ (Yale University Press, 2008), examines the importance of â€œskilled manual labor,â€ which he believes includes computer programming.
Even in highly abstract fields, like the design of next-generation electronic circuits, some people believe that hands-on experiences can enhance creativity. â€œYou need your hands to verify experimentally a technology that doesnâ€™t exist,â€ says Mario Paniccia, director of Intelâ€™s photonics technology lab in Santa Clara, Calif. Building optical switches in silicon materials, for example, requires engineers to test the experimental switches themselves, and to build test equipment, too.
This sort of thing would make all the difference in the Humanities and Social Studies, too, where only too many people, trained only in the manipulation of words, symbols, and ideas, inevitably come to repose infinite confidence in the calculative powers of human reason and the decisions of the State to do more or less anything, including changing fundamental aspects of the human condition. Al Gore obviously believes that we can pass a few laws, add some taxes, regulations, and subsidies and magically economically viable new technologies will promptly spring into being, allowing us to change completely the carbon-based cycle of energy production not only underlying the human economy from the time of the discovery of fire and the domestication of livestock onward, but underlying all life on earth (with the exception of a few bacteria). Barack Obama expects to be able to control the levels of the oceans. You can see that neither of those guys ever built anything complicated and mechanical.
Candidate Obama, like so many lefties, seems to believe anything bad about the United States, without even submitting it to critical thinking. He said on May 19, 2008, for example, that 3% of the worldâ€™s population (i.e., in his calculation, the United States) accounts for 25% of the greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere. In the 1970s, the lefties used to talk about 6% of the worldâ€™s population using 25% of the worldâ€™s energy. Even before Obama, they were blaming America first.
The leftâ€™s figures depend on what is meant by â€œenergy.â€ Before the founding and development of the United States, â€œenergyâ€ meant the human back, beasts of burden, windmills, waterwheels, burning wood, coke, and coal, and the like. The United States is certainly not using 25% of the energy generated by those means today. I donâ€™t think so, although it might be. The darn country is just so efficient.
But if we mean by â€œenergyâ€ only the modern sources of energy â€“ electricity, the Franklin stove, the steam engine, the piston engine propelled by gasoline (and now by electric and/or hydrogen batteries), the processing of crude oil into gasoline, nuclear energy, the jet engine, the development of ethanol and other fuels derived from plants, and other devices â€“ all of these except one were invented by the people of the United States, as their gift to the world. (The exception was the steam engine, invented by our cousins in Britain, and further developed here as well as there.)
In other words, the United States has invented nearly 100% of what the modern world means by â€œenergy.â€ And it has helped the rest of the world to use 75%.
In one of the Foxfire books, the 1970s-era high school students out collecting Appalachian folklore come upon an old ridgerunner rebuilding a tractor engine. They express astonishment at his abiity to undertake such a project, and the old farmer dismissively replies: “A man built it, didn’t he?”
Things were mostly different then, and they’re gettng more so today, as Matthew B. Crawford observes
an engineering culture has developed in recent years in which the object is to “hide the works,” rendering the artifacts we use unintelligible to direct inspection. Lift the hood on some cars now (especially German ones), and the engine appears a bit like the shimmering, featureless obelisk that so enthralled the cavemen in the opening scene of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Essentially, there is another hood under the hood. This creeping concealedness takes various forms. The fasteners holding small appliances together now often require esoteric screwdrivers not commonly available, apparently to prevent the curious or the angry from interrogating the innards. By way of contrast, older readers will recall that until recent decades, Sears catalogues included blown-up parts diagrams and conceptual schematics for all appliances and many other mechanical goods. It was simply taken for granted that such information would be demanded by the consumer.
A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our mode of inhabiting the world: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves installing a pre-made replacement part.
So perhaps the time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world.
The late Robert A. Heinlein agreed with him.
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
–Robert A. Heinlein, The Notebooks of Lazarus Long, 1978.