Today, we find some very big machines. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
At the bookstore the other
night, I was drawn to a coffee table picture book,
Eric Orlemann's Giant Earth-Moving
Equipment, filled with photos of steam
shovels. I couldn't walk away from it.
The word steam shovel was used when I was a kid.
You still saw steam-powered shovels with coal-fired
vertical boilers. Today's big earth movers are
diesel powered and they reach astonishing size, but
they're used where few of us will see them. They're
far too large for our highways. They're made by
companies like Bucyrus-Erie, Marion, Krupp, and
Hitachi. The really big ones could swallow
steam-powered Mike Mulligan in one gulp.
The Marion 6360 stripping shovel is biggest of the
lot. A single link from one of its eight crawler
tracks weighs three and a half tons. It stands 21
stories high and its bucket can lift 270 tons of
dirt -- twice the weight of a blue whale. Four of
these rigs would outweigh the Titanic.
Size has fallen out of fashion in our technology.
Today's high tech focuses on miniaturization. We
can do surgery on DNA and store a pixel of
information on a spot 500 atoms across. We know
information lives on microscopic levels in our
computers, but we hardly know these large
Yet they're out there -- vast drag lines, shovels,
excavators. They build the heroic works of civil
engineering. They reshape our world as they help
make dams, canals, highway cuts. It's their role in
mining we don't want to know about. Before
legislation forced coal companies to restore the
land, these great strip mining engines had laid
waste to huge areas of Kentucky, West Virginia, and
Pennsylvania. And our steel industry still feeds on
But did you know that these machines also help us
on our way into space? The same Marion Company that
built the largest earth mover also built the two
NASA Crawler Transporters
-- the tractors that carry Space Shuttles to the
launch site. They weigh 20,000 tons loaded. No
other land transportation system comes close.
Yet the Shuttle is about microchips,
microecosystems, and microgravity. The contrast
between the vehicle and its contents verges on
preposterous. A century ago all eyes would've been
turned on that huge traveling platform -- half as
big as a football field. Now we focus on the
micromeasurements made in the little space where
the humans ride. Who even notices the tractor!
Today's technologies create a strange trick of
perspective. They cast a mantle of invisibility
about the largest machines ever set down on land.
Today's vastness lies in dimensions of smallness
that open up, layer under layer, when we reach down
into molecules and build devices that blur into the
quantum end-of-matter. The big machines hide from
us behind their very immensity.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds