Today, we'll try to cross the English Channel. 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.
For thousands of years the
English Channel has been a barrier that's
tantalized people. It's a neck of cold, forbidding
waters, as little as 21 miles wide, separating
Europe from England. We hear Shakespeare saying to
Henry the Fifth's army:
And thence to France shall we convey you safe,When Hitler stared across the Channel in
1941, he found those 21 miles too far to go.
And bring you back, charming the narrow sea,
to give you gentle pass.
So it's not suprising that people have looked at
many means for getting themselves across. The first
time the channel yielded to anything other than a
boat was over 200 years ago. That was Blanchard's
balloon-crossing in 1785 -- a little over a year
after the first balloon ascent was made in Paris.
The most primitive means for crossing the channel,
of course, is swimming. And it's odd that we have
no records of anyone trying that before 1872 -- a
century after it was flown. The first person to
succeed was Matthew Webb, who swam it three years
later, in 1875. It took him 22 hours.
Like ballooning, heavier-than-air flight was
attracted to the Channel almost immediately. In
1908 the London Daily Mail offered a
£1000 prize for the first Channel flight.
That was only five years after the Wright brothers
and only two years after the first European flight.
The Frenchman Louis Bleriot won the prize a year
And in 1979 a strange 75-pound airplane called the
Gossamer Albatross won the
£100,000 Kremer prize for the first
human-powered flight over the Channel. For three
hours, pilot Bryan Allen pedaled its propeller and
flew it into the record books.
All this makes us wonder, what next! Well, I'll
tell you what's next. Tunneling has already started
under the Channel. Two main train tunnels with a
smaller access tunnel between them are being
drilled through the chalk marl under the Channel.
This joint English/French project will cost 10
billion dollars. Tunnels reaching out from both
Folkestone and Calais are to be joined in the
Summer of 1990.
The idea of tunneling isn't new. The English and
French began one in 1881; but the British aborted
it for fear it could serve the French as an
invasion route. The British started a another one
15 years ago but had to abandon it for lack of
I suppose the next project'll be a bridge -- not
that it strikes me as practical. It just seems like
the kind of challenge engineers won't be able to
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For more on the matter of tunneling (especially
tunnelling under the English Channel) see the
proceedings of the Smithsonian Institution's
symposium on its tunneling exhibition, Down Under:
Tunnels Past, Present, and Future, National
Museum of American History, Saturday, October 23,
I say more about tunnelling as a metaphor in
Episodes 51, 664, 849
and 855. For a more
technical look at tunnelling, try the search
function, using the word "tunnel".
This episode has been substantially rewritten as
From the 1832 Edinburgh
Blanchard's hydrogen balloon with paddles for
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H.
From a 1910 magazine
Bleriot's flight across the English Channel
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