Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 308:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 308.

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 Alexandria
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
So 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.

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 work.

(Theme music)

Cottrell, L., Wonders of the World. New York: Rinehart & Company, 1959.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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