Eight great American engineering achievements will be the subject of a major PBS series in 2002. Traditionally, publishers commission a densely illustrated coffee-table book to accompany such a show: here, happily, is a superior example of the genre.
While apparently chosen at random, all eight are impressive achievements. The earliest—but still in progress—is the taming of the lower Mississippi. Beginning with levees now stretching a thousand miles, work continues with massive dams, spillways, floodways, and control structures to keep the river from changing course. Experts agree this is ultimately futile, but the economic consequences would be so awful if we stopped that the projects continue. Historian Tobin (Ernie Pyle's War, 1997) illustrates the preoccupation of engineers with water by including three additional achievements: Hoover Dam, the New York City bridges, and the New York City water system. Electrical engineering takes up three chapters: the first is largely devoted to Thomas Edison, the man who not only invented the first practical electric light, but built the first electrical generating system (in New York). It lost money. The second describes development of the immense, worldwide electrical grid we take for granted. Last, the author tells the story of the Internet, an extension of this electrical grid, this time connecting individuals. Great engineering feats can turn out badly. Some would place our urban freeway system in this category. The author makes a good case by devoting a chapter to the most expensive engineering project in US history: the “big dig” now building a freeway through downtown Boston—underground. When it's finished, the detested surface freeway directly overhead will be torn down. Meanwhile, Tobin provides generous historical background to each project and doesn't neglect to explain scientific and engineering problems in a way laymen can understand. Maps, diagrams, and rare photographs appear on almost every page.
A fine addition to the sparse library of engineering histories.