Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1846:
TALLEST, LONGEST

by John H. Lienhard

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Today, the tallest and the longest. 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.

Skyscrapers and bridges — spanning, reaching, record-setting — trying to tell us something about ourselves. The tallest monuments and churches had all topped out below five hundred feet by the seventeenth century. Not till 1885 did that change. Then two structures signaled an abrupt rush upward.

The Washington Monument edged past that five hundred foot ceiling to become the world's tallest masonry structure. But, 1885 was also when the first steel-frame building went up in Chicago, and it changed the game utterly. Skyscrapers would now race upward, while no taller masonry structure would ever be built.

Texas reclaimed bragging rights for the tallest monument with the 1939 San Jacinto Monument. But it was steel-reinforced concrete, not masonry — more kin to a skyscraper.

By then, even skyscrapers had ended their initial race upward. They'd sprouted after the Eiffel Tower had grandly demonstrated what steel frames could do. New York built the eight hundred foot Woolworth Building in 1913. It still stands, a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center. The Chrysler Building became the world's tallest in 1930. A year later, the Empire State Building claimed the record. But it remained the tallest building until it was surpassed by the World Trade Center, forty years later.

The history of great bridges is similar. Like skyscrapers, they followed the improvements of iron and steel. In 1779, Telford's Iron Bridge in Shropshire was the first built from improved British iron. It was only a hundred feet long, but new ferrous metals now sent bridges racing outward across the waters.

In 1874, Eads finished the 1550-foot St. Louis Bridge over the Mississippi. Nine years later the Brooklyn Bridge was more than twice that length. We had the eight-thousand-foot Firth of Forth Bridge in 1890. The Golden Gate Bridge outreached it in 1937.

But, like the excesses of skyscraper building, bridge-building also cooled as the market crashed. Hugeness lost its appeal; we saw that we'd been serving human hubris as much as human need.

The next great boom, the 1960s, produced the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the World Trade Center, and Chicago's Sears Tower. A new boom in the '90s gave us Kuala Lampur's Petrona Towers, Japan's great Akashi-Kaikyo bridge, and the øresund bridge system between Denmark and Sweden.

They're all compelling, less for their dramatic rendition than for the hope and energy they express. Of course they reflect human hubris; but pride and hope go hand in hand. We need to remember that in these dispirited times. Gaze at the grandeur of a building or bridge so overwhelming that we can no longer make out people at the far end. But people are there. They savor the same drama; they place their hope in the same potential for building better lives.

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

(Theme music)


The statistical data underlying this episode can all be found on the web. For more on the sudden emergence of tall structures in the 1880s, see J. H. Lienhard, Inventing Modern: Growing up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003, see especially Chapters 6 and 7.

World Trade Center and Woolworth Building
World Trade Center and Woolworth Building, Aug., 1999. (Photo by John Lienhard)


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.