Today, we look at the first and last wonder of the
world. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
We use the words "Eighth
Wonder of the World" to name each new engineering
marvel that comes down the road -- bridges, ships,
and rockets. Maybe it's time to look back at the
original Wonders. The 2nd-century BC Hellenistic
engineer Philon of Byzantium wrote a tract called
De Septem Orbis Spectaculis, --
literally, Of the Seven Spectacles of the
World. He listed:
The Lighthouse at AlexandriaSo the Seven Wonders of the Ancient
World are correctly those and those alone. They were
marvels, of course. The great 150-foot bronze
Colossus standing astride the jetties of Rhodes must
have been daunting indeed. Yet Philon's list did by
no means include the definitive great works for all
time. They were the seven grandest works that he
could identify in 150 BC. The Colossus lasted only 56
years before it was brought down by an earthquake.
All Philon actually saw of it was bronze rubble.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
The Colossus of Rhodes
The Statue of Zeus at Olympia
The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
The Tomb of Mausolus at Halicarnassus
The Great Pyramid of Cheops
But the oldest of the Wonders is the only one that
survives today, and it towers over the others. The
Great Pyramid had been around two and a half
millennia when Philon made his list, and it's with
us today. It stretches two and a half football
fields on each side. It stands one and a half
football fields high.
Today's mythology tells of slaves being whipped and
beaten and worked to death to build it. But the
ancient Egyptians didn't use slaves. The Great
Pyramid was made by hired workers, and by workers
who were obviously good at what they did.
When author Leonard Cottrell asks what a legitimate
list of Wonders would look like today, he opens an
odd can of worms. Would it still include great
constructions -- Hoover Dam and the World Trade
Center? Would Chartres Cathedral be more in keeping
with the spirit of the game? One candidate is the
Chicago sewage system. We're less inclined to call
that suggestion frivolous once we've studied its
vast, complex workings.
Sputnik was small, and it's rapidly being
forgotten; yet it represented a greater reach of
the human spirit than the Colossus did. The rules
of the game have clearly shifted. The really great
wonder of the late 20th century is the computer.
Yet the Great Pyramid is a Wonder that would surely
linger on today's list. We've seen larger
constructions by now, but they're all tainted by
material purpose. The Pyramid touches our hearts,
not by what it does, but by what it does not do.
That great sepulcher is an abstract exercise in
magnitude. It shows us the human mind chasing
grandeur as an end in itself.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds