From arches made from Roman concrete that still stand to structures that will allow for deeper exploration of space, human feats of engineering have made life easier for countless people and opened new worlds of exploration. These are a few of the most astounding.
International Space Station
It’s one thing to launch a monumental building project on Earth. It’s another to do it in space, between 200 and 300 miles above our planet’s surface. Putting the nearly 1-million-pound ISS together took more than 30 trips into low-Earth orbit. Five space programs and 15 countries are participants in the project, which has hosted astronauts continuously since 2000. Modular components can be added to or removed from the ISS as it fulfills various scientific missions. The atmosphere inside is consistent with that of sea level on Earth, and the living quarters contain six sleeping areas, two bathrooms, and a gym.
Golden Gate Bridge
When it opened in 1937, the bridge was one of the most impressive feats of engineering on Earth. It was both the longest and tallest suspension bridge in the world, connecting San Francisco to Marin County across the Golden Gate, where the Pacific Ocean meets San Francisco Bay. Though the Navy wanted the bridge to be painted yellow and black to maximize visibility, architect Irving Morrow chose the international orange that makes it so iconic. Perhaps the most astounding aspects of the bridge’s construction were that it was completed ahead of schedule and under budget.
Another Depression-era project, the dam along the Arizona-Nevada border was the largest concrete structure in the world when it opened in 1936. The feats of engineering that went into such a massive project were more impressive considering many of the techniques used during construction had never been tried before. The dam’s turbines, which handle the entire flow of the Colorado River, power 13 million homes. Water from Lake Mead, the reservoir the dam created, serves 18 million people in Nevada, Arizona, and California, and irrigates more than 1 million acres of land.
The trio of manmade islands off the coast of Dubai were conceived as a way to add more coastline as the emirate sought to vastly expand its tourism offerings and capacity. The islands (Palm Jumeirah, Deira Island, and Palm Jebel Ali) are made entirely from rock and limestone quarried in Dubai and sand harvested from deep sea beds off the coast of the emirate. Breakwaters about 10 feet high surround the islands to prevent high waves and allow seawater to move through without causing damage. Divers check every six weeks to monitor the marine life, which includes new species of fish and reef formations attracted by the islands.
At more than 1,100 feet high, it’s the current tallest bridge in the world and is one of the signature feats of engineering in the 21st century. The viaduct opened in December 2004, a few weeks ahead of schedule, and won the 2006 Outstanding Structure Award from the International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering. The concrete-and-steel structure is 8,070 feet long and the route was chosen from among four candidates designed to alleviate congestion around the town of Millau in southeastern France along a popular route from Paris to Spain. The builders estimate the viaduct will last 120 years.
The 31-mile distance between the coasts of England and France has long proved tantalizing for residents on either side of the English Channel. The first proposal for a tunnel under the channel connecting the two countries came in 1802 with Frenchman Albert Mathieu-Favier envisioning horse-drawn carriages guided by oil lamps. The dream of the Channel Tunnel continued for decades, with Winston Churchill being a proponent in the 1920s. Finally in 1986 the countries agreed on a treaty to build the tunnel, and four years later an Englishman and a Frenchman broke through the service tunnel to join the two sides. Trains began running through the Channel Tunnel in 1994, and more than 10 million passengers annually cross the channel underwater.
Cutting across the Isthmus of Panama, the 51-mile canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and saves a great deal of time and danger sailing around Cape Horn. The project was not without its travails, with work beginning in 1881 and the canal not opening until 1914. It was originally a French undertaking until engineering difficulties and worker deaths made investors cut off funding. The U.S. took over in 1904 and completed the canal a decade later. Locks lift ships up to an artificial lake 85 feet above sea level, dropping them back down on the other side, one of the best feats of engineering in the modern world.
Great Man-Made River
The world’s largest irrigation project carries water across Libya from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System, providing 70% of the fresh water used in the nation of 7 million people. There are 1,750 miles of pipes and aqueducts and 1,300 wells making up the waterway, which delivers 230 million cubic feet of water to Libya’s cities every day. More than 50,000 artificial palm trees provide condensation along the route. Libya lacks rivers and other natural waterways, so the feats of engineering in the project are vital to the life of the country.
Kansai International Airport
Serving the cities of Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe, the airport sits on an artificial island in Osaka Bay and sports the longest airport terminal in the world at over a mile. Engineers needed to guard against the earthquakes and typhoons that Japan is prone to, excavating three mountains to build a sea wall. Sliding joints and other feats of engineering have helped the airport withstand the Great Hanshin Earthquake, whose epicenter was 12 miles away, and typhoon winds of 130 mph. The island’s sinking has required additional works that made it the most expensive civil engineering project in the world.
Large Hadron Collider
To facilitate the experiments that have led to such scientific discoveries as that of the Higgs boson, engineers dug a tunnel 17 miles in circumference and nearly 600 feet beneath the Earth at the Swiss-French border near Geneva. The circular tunnel is as shallow as 164 feet below the surface and as deep as 574 feet. The tunnel concept uses the Earth’s crust as a natural shield against background radiation. More than 10,000 magnets keep the beam pipes in place as protons travel the more than 16 miles of the main ring 11,245 times per second.