A survey of bridges, dams, and other innovative civil-engineering projects emblematic of mankind’s ongoing compulsion to pit technological ingenuity against the seemingly impossible.
Continuing his long-established preeminence for winnowing astounding facts from both simple and complex scenarios (Small Things Considered, 2003, etc.), Petroski connects seemingly random examples of engineering risk, followed by varying degrees of success or failure, with their common element of hubris. The subtitle is clumsy and misleading: the narrative ranges well back into the 19th century for examples and uses the massive collapse of California’s St. Francis Dam, which killed hundreds in 1928, as the prime illustration of Petroski’s principle that “a great failure is the perfect counterexample to a hubristic hypothesis.” But there are also intriguing analyses of lesser known recent projects, such as Britain’s amazingly innovative Gateshead Drawbridge over the river Tyne, popularly known as the “Eyeblink Bridge,” and a wobbly pedestrian bridge across the Thames that proved to its builders what they should have established in advance: a majority of people forced onto a restricted walkway will inevitably fall into step like an army. Was hubris involved in conceiving and building the World Trade Center structures? The mainstream and subsidiary theories of what really led to the fatal “pancaking” of the upper floors onto lower ones on 9/11, Petroski states, still elude formal proof to this day. And in an illuminating discussion based on a recent visit to China’s ongoing Great Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze, the author gives Chinese engineers and bureaucrats good marks for understanding the formidable problems involved and is cautiously optimistic about its outcome, save for the ultimate environmental impact, which remains beyond realistic projection. “It is human nature to build upon successes with a bravado that can be checked only by tragedy,” Petroski somewhat chillingly asserts.
Rich pickings for architecture and engineering mavens. (29 illustrations)