Dreams of Iron and Steel : Seven Wonders of the Modern Age, from the Building of the London Sewers to the Panama Canal

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2009-01-20
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications
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The eagerly awaited new book from the author of "The Lost King of France." This is the story of how the modern world was forged--in rivets, grease and steam; in blood, sweat and human imagination.

Table of Contents

Introduction x
7. THE HOOVER DAM 231(36)
Bibliography and Sources 267(22)
Illustration Credits 289(2)
Acknowledgments 291(2)
Index 293


Dreams of Iron and Steel
Seven Wonders of the Modern Age, from the Building of the London Sewers to the Panama Canal

Chapter One

The Great Eastern

I have never embarked on any one thing to which
I have so entirely devoted myself, and to which I have devoted
so much time, thought and labour, on the success of
which I have staked so much reputation ...

Isambard Kingdom Brunel
on the Great Eastern, 1854

In 1857, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Britain's foremost engineer, paused one day for a photograph in Napier's shipyard at Millwall in East London. Cigar in mouth, with mud caked on his shoes and trousers, this is no formal photograph. He has his hands in his pockets, his clothes are creased, his hair untidy. The face and, particularly, the eyes are absorbed in something that can only be imagined, something that occupies him completely. He looks like a man with a future.

Brunel was at the peak of his fame, his latest venture had become the talk of England. Behind him rose the massive dark shape of the hull of the Great Eastern, the largest ship in the world, the Leviathan of her day. Expectant sightseers from across Europe came to see her on the banks of the Thames, where she rose, wrote Charles Dickens, "above the house-tops, above the tree-tops, standing in impressive calmness like some huge cathedral." Nothing like this had been seen before; when complete, shewould be the largest moving man-made object ever built and, for many, a symbol of the greatness of the British Empire. Yet far from being the final triumph in Brunel's brilliant career, the Great Eastern was to become the monstrous creation that would destroy him.

Brunel's grand scheme had begun to take shape a few years earlier, shortly after the Great Exhibition of 1851. Britain had seen a spectacular boom in the railway industry, with over 6,000 miles of track laid since the1830s. Brunel himself, caught up in the thick of railway mania, was increasingly disillusioned by it. "The whole world is railway mad," he protested to a friend. "I am really sick of hearing proposals made." Amongst his sketches for Paddington station in London in 1852, his note-books reveal drawings of his next bold venture: a great steamship, almost twice the length of any ship ever built.

He dreamed of a floating city, majestic by day and a brilliant mirage at night, reflecting a million lights in the dark water. It was to be a ship of such vast and unheard of proportions that she would be able to carry4,000 passengers in pampered luxury as she steamed through distant seas. In the evening there would be dancing under sparkling chandeliers or a stroll on deck in especially manufactured "moonlight" as she pursued her steady course to the antipodes magically, without need of refueling. Butcould Brunel ever realize his dream and build the "Crystal Palace of the Sea"? Who could afford to support him?

Most ships docking in the Thames in the mid-nineteenth century were made of wood and built to a traditional design around a skeleton of wooden ribs giving strength to the hull. They were wind-powered and usually little more than 150 feet in length. Brunel's "Great Ship," as she came to be known, was to be 692 feet long, 120 feet wide, and 58 feet deep. Enormous engines as high as a house, with the power of over 8,000 galloping horses, would drive her paddle wheels and screw engines. In addition, an impressive 6,500 yards of sail would be carried on six masts and five funnels that were spread along her deck. The revolutionary new design of her hull, strong and streamlined, would see her cut through the seas as smoothly as a knife cuts butter, and she would have the practical capability to carry all her own fuel to the farthest reaches of the empire and back. Brunel felt certain there was a need for such a ship.

To most shipbuilders of the day, Brunel's Great Ship would have seemed an unattainable, magnificent dream, but Brunel had a way with dreams -- his châteaux d'Espagne. At 20, he had risked his life as engineeron the first tunnel under the Thames. At 24, he was elected a member of the Royal Society. He went on to design five suspension bridges, including the magnificent Clifton Suspension Bridge at Bristol, as well as wet and dry docks, tunnels, and piers. In 1833, he became engineer-in-chiefto the Great Western Railway. His trains, speeding at 50 miles an hour past fields and villages, opened up England and joined distant cities. He surveyed and planned the route from Paddington to Bristol, designing the track, cuttings, tunnels, stations, and trains -- even the signal boxes and at least 125 bridges on the route west. As he built the Great Western Railway, his dreams became even grander. He imagined large steamships that would go farther west, sailing out across the Atlantic to America, shrinking the world's oceans and creating a global system of transport.

Brunel launched the Great Western in 1837, which, although constructed traditionally in wood, was the largest steamship ever built, and faster, too. In 1843, he surpassed this with his second ship, the Great Britain, which at nearly 322 feet long and 50 feet wide, was the first large iron screw steamship, with a new design of hull and increased emphasis on longitudinal strength. The Great Britain was not built in the traditional rib design; instead, 10 iron girders ran the length of the vessel at the base. Everything about the ship was designed for strength, and she became an extremely profitable ship on the Australia run. In 1851, with the discovery of gold in Australia and increasing demand for passenger and mail traffic to the east, Brunel could see a commercial possibility for an even bigger ship. "Size in a ship is an element of speed," he argued, "and of strength and of safety and of great relative economy."

Dreams of Iron and Steel
Seven Wonders of the Modern Age, from the Building of the London Sewers to the Panama Canal
. Copyright © by Deborah Cadbury. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Dreams of Iron and Steel: Seven Wonders of the Modern Age, from the Building of the London Sewers to the Panama Canal by Deborah Cadbury
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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