What Were the Most Impressive Engineering Projects of the 19th Century?

This deserves celebration.

What were the most impressive engineering projects of the 19th century? originally appeared on Quora, the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

A good engineering story is a hero’s journey: it necessarily has its ups and downs, its likely and unlikely heroes, fake and real endings. So does this one, and it starts with ancient words of wonder.

A Book of Numbers phrase (Numbers 23:23; What hath God wrought) was the first long-distance telegraph message in 1844, the triumph of Samuel Morse ’s invention and a preview of the new telecommunications era. There is no doubt, Morse’s work is one of a brilliant engineer, the foundation of the device you read this text on and network you got this text through. But the great tale of engineering, persistence, success, failure, competition and vision was yet to begin: the story of the Transatlantic Cable and the Elon Musk of the days past, Cyrus West Field.

Acting on the ideas about a telegraph cable connecting Europe and North America, Field was determined to solve the practical problems of the project and find the money to support it. It was the equivalent of a space program back then, both budget-wise and technology-wise. The cable couldn’t break, the cable couldn’t be lost. Of course, it would break and long portions of it would be lost, but that couldn’t stop Field.

While it wouldn’t stop him in his attempts to place the cable between Newfoundland and Ireland, the repeated accidents encouraged his main rival, Western Union, in their own plan of connecting the United States and Europe, the long way. Western Union was going to place their cable on land, over Alaska and Siberia. The Russian connection seemed to be more viable: Poseidon apparently didn’t like the submarine cable.

While the Western Union was stretching its wires over Alaska, Field set sail again (and again). In the summer of 1858, he made it: the cable was all in one piece, from Newfoundland to Ireland. The first message took half an hour to be sent, and it was again a biblical one:

"Directors of Atlantic Telegraph Company, Great Britain, to Directors in America:- Europe and America are united by telegraph. Glory to God in the highest; on earth peace and good will towards men."

The celebrations on both sides of the wire were in order: it was a major accomplishment of the civilisation, receiving messages across the ocean in a matter of minutes instead of sailing for days to carry the news. The Queen of the East and the President of the West rejoiced for three weeks.

And then the cable broke down. Was it the tension, was it the voltage or poor manufacturing, it didn’t really matter at the time: the fact was that the big success turned into an overnight failure. Some even had their doubts if the cable existed at all (told you this is a space program sort of thing).

Of course, Field wanted to go back to the sea as soon as possible with a new roll of cable and do things right this time, and be faster than the Western Union, who were again encouraged to pursue their landways. He will have to wait for seven years, though: the Civil War prevented an earlier action.

The minute war was over, Field was back in the cable-placing saddle. And now he was going to do it right: he needed the biggest ship in the world for the biggest cable in the world (space program, ahem). The choice was easy: SS Great Eastern, masterpiece of shipbuilding designed by the greatest engineer of the 19th century, the Elon Musk of the British Empire (yes, he had the Hyperloop idea 150 years ago!), Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Again, Field was in for failures, snapping cables and technical difficulties before he finally laid not one, but two cables under the Atlantic. The speaker on the American side buzzed.

A treaty of peace has been signed between Austria and Prussia.

That deserves a celebration, doesn’t it?

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