Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1698:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, an oddly familiar story. 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.

I want to talk about the Holland Tunnel, but I should warn you: the story is a lot like other stories you've heard about great works of engineering. The plot goes thus:

Leaders acknowledge a large public need. They debate strategy and try to set up a plan for solving the problem. Then a visionary separates himself from the pack. His project is grander and bolder than anyone had expected. He convinces skeptics and puts the project on the road to completion. Finally, he dies on this side of his Jordan River. Others are left to complete the dream.

That's how it was with the Hoover Dam, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Great Eastern steamship, the Mount Palomar telescope. That's also how it was with the Holland Tunnel.

In 1906 the Island of Manhattan, its population mushrooming, found it harder and harder to bring in supplies. After thirteen years of discussion, the young civil engineer Clifford Holland was given the job of drilling a highway tunnel under the Hudson River. He began drilling two parallel thirty-foot-diameter tunnels, almost two miles long, under the Hudson River.

But now such a tunnel faced a problem no earlier tunnel had ever faced. The automobile had come into its own. This tunnel would have to carry forty thousand trucks and cars each day. Huge quantities of carbon monoxide gas had to be cleared out. Holland's great contribution would necessarily be a wholly new ventilation system to flush out exhaust gases.

His system was gargantuan. Forty-two fans, each eighty feet in diameter, replaced four million cubic feet of fresh air per minute. If all that air had been pumped in from the ends, it would've blasted through the tunnel at seventy-five miles per hour. To get around that problem, Holland pumped fresh air down a service tube below the tunnel. He scavenged bad air out through a second tube paralleling the tunnel from above.

But of course the entire project was enormous. Constant problems had to be solved, new technology had to be created, skeptics had to be fended off. It took a terrible toll on Holland. By 1924 he had it under control, but he was suffering from nervous exhaustion. He entered a sanitarium for some rest, only to die there of a heart attack. He was forty-one. Two weeks later the tunnel was named after him. He was succeeded by Ole Singstad who had designed the ventilation system..

Calvin Coolidge opened the tunnel in 1927. That first Sunday fifty-two thousand vehicles passed through it. Today it often carries a hundred thousand in a day. Holland's controversial ventilation system, conceived for half that number, still serves them.

You've heard the story before, but it doesn't wear out. We can always hear one more tale of a heroic technology carried out by a self-sacrificing hero. And there always seems to be one more hero about whom such a story can be told.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

McKay, E.M., Tunneling to New York. American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Fall 1988, pp. 22-31.

See also: http://www.panynj.gov/tbt/hthist.HTM

This is a greatly revised version of Episode 197.

For a full-size image click on either thumbnail above
Holland Tunnel images in The World Book of Knowledge a year before it was finished

On the left: Breaking through to join the two sides of the Tunnel.
On the right: Schematic diagram of the Jersey side of the Tunnel.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H. Lienhard.