What Would Joe Do?
Peggy Aycinena is a freelance journalist and Editor of EDA Confidential at www.aycinena.com. She can be reached at peggy at aycinena dot com.
Reverie: All That Glitters is not Past
January 12th, 2017 by Peggy Aycinena
It’s within that spirit that I recalled this week a reverie that unfolded several years back while sailing the waters of Lake Gatun midst the Panama Canal. A reverie that attempted to synchronize the muscular optimism at the turn into the last century with the somewhat more tenuous outlook at the turn into this one.
That earlier reverie was tempered by remembering innovations such as the Vienna Secession, Futurism, Fin de siècle, Dada and Cubism – movements that propelled some observers from the nineteenth century into the twentieth – could hardly be said to reflect a stridently cheery outlook. Inversely, the angst and anxiety that oft-times characterize the narcissism of our own here-and-now – trends that have sometimes accompanied our complex journey from the twentieth century into the twenty-first – are profoundly repudiated by the engineering marvels that define this equally muscular New Age.
In truth, the past was never as rosy as we remember and rarely does the future fulfill our darkest premonitions. It’s simply the nature of the human comedy that we so thoroughly believe they do.
Thanks to the efficiencies of modern travel, two weeks ago I was standing under the Eiffel Tower, a week ago I was looking across the Golden Gate Bridge, and today I transited the Panama Canal – three iconic landmarks that in many ways define their locales. From the standpoint of history, they also define in many ways a particularly Golden Age of Engineering.
The Eiffel Tower, designed and constructed by Gustave Eiffel, Émile Nouguier, Maurice Koechlin, and Stephen Sauvestre, among others, was completed in 1889 as a “temporary” centerpiece of the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, and was built to showcase the modern technology and aesthetics of the day.
The Golden Gate Bridge, designed and constructed by Joseph Strauss, Leon Moisseiff, Irving Morrow, and Charles Ellis, among others, was completed in 1937, and was until recently the longest single span suspension bridge in the world. It remains to this day, however, the most beautiful and certainly the most challenging in its construction logistics, given the extreme marine conditions at the mouth of the San Francisco Bay.
Half way between 1889 and 1937, the Panama Canal opened in August 1914. Records indicate it was first suggested by the Spanish crown in the 1530s, while history says it was first attempted by the French in the late 19th century, and finally built by the Americans between 1903 and 1914.
The engineers and designers involved, among the many, included Ferdinand de Lesseps, John Wallace, John Stevens, and George Goethals. The motivation was obvious – to shorten the shipping routes for global circumnavigation by almost 8000 miles. The costs were astronomical – more than $7 billion in present day dollars. And the human toll was staggering – more than 26,000 lives lost. The Canal was built for economic and military reasons; it has ended up being one of the great tourist destinations of the world as well.
The technologies needed to build the Eiffel Tower, The Golden Gate Bridge, and The Panama Canal were millenniums in the making, but it was the engineering breakthroughs of the second half of the 19th century that proved pivotal to these modern-day Wonders of the World, including improvements in iron fabrication, the science of concrete production, refinements in steam locomotion and railway construction, and the mastery of electric power generation and distribution.
Innovations in the design and manufacturing of the slide rule were also critical, as this important productivity tool helped make the ponderous engineering calculations for the Tower, the Bridge, and the Canal possible. Contributors there included Amédée Mannhaim [in 1859], Edwin Thatcher [in 1881], and William Cox [in 1891].
Most of all, however, these many innovations in computation, material science, and civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering were also aided and abetted by the can-do attitude of a time characterized by vigor, optimism, and bold visions of a future made better by invention and ingenuity.
Now, fast froward to today. Here we sit in the final days of yet another Golden Age of Engineering, one that has also proven to be about 50 years long, has given us the Digital Revolution, and has advanced technology, and its impact, at a pace few could have predicted half a century ago.
The question on my mind, as we made the 9-hour voyage slowly and steadily through the Panama Canal today, was not about the profound nature of the changes we have wrought in this current Age, but whether the vigor, optimism, and bold visions that so clearly defined that earlier Golden Age are still part of our mental landscape today. Or have we reached a point instead, where we fear the future and despair of our ability to control the technology we’ve created and the way it is shaping our lives?
Of course, the answer to this question is quite complex for several reasons. The 1889 to 1937 Golden Age was not without it fears and horrors. The Titanic wasn’t such a great technological marvel, as it turns out, and The Great War proved to many that mechanized slaughter was also not such a great calling call card for technology.
Additionally, the fear that grips us today is often overstated. Yes, we’re producing electronic trash at an alarming rate. Yes, our children spend zillions of hours with electronic entertainment, in lieu of family story telling around the hearth. And yes, we’re all so addicted to our virtual lives, we can barely stand to be parted from our smart devices for more than an hour.
But, look at the massive advancements in communication and computation, in health care, in connections to the outside world for the lonely and housebound, in educational materials, in social discourse, in online bill paying and electronic banking, and the rapid deployment of news to an extent that the desire for change makes that change happen so much faster. And this is just the start.
Look at our digital cameras, our entertainments systems, our GPS tools, our word processors, our self-publishing capabilities. Look at the democratization of information dissemination. These things make our lives frenetic, but in many ways they also make our lives just that much more free and open.
One hundred years from now, when our great great grandchildren look back at this particular Golden Age of Engineering, I believe they will be as awestruck by what has been wrought here, as we are of a Tower, a Bridge, and a Canal that stand out from an earlier era. I know this because when great intellect and visionary technology is applied to a highly organized human effort, the results can be quite simply, astounding.
Humbling, and astounding.
This reverie was first published in June 2011 in Superheroes of SoC.