Today, the tallest and the longest. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Skyscrapers and bridges —
spanning, reaching, record-setting — trying to
tell us something about ourselves. The tallest
monuments and churches had all topped out below
five hundred feet by the seventeenth century. Not
till 1885 did that change. Then two structures
signaled an abrupt rush upward.
The Washington Monument
edged past that five hundred foot ceiling to become
the world's tallest masonry structure. But, 1885
was also when the first steel-frame building
went up in Chicago, and
it changed the game utterly. Skyscrapers would now
race upward, while no taller masonry
structure would ever be built.
Texas reclaimed bragging rights for the tallest
monument with the 1939 San Jacinto Monument. But it
was steel-reinforced concrete, not masonry — more
kin to a skyscraper.
By then, even skyscrapers had ended their initial
race upward. They'd sprouted after the Eiffel Tower had grandly
demonstrated what steel frames could do. New York
built the eight hundred foot Woolworth Building in
1913. It still stands, a few blocks from the site
of the World Trade Center. The Chrysler Building
became the world's tallest in 1930. A year later,
the Empire State Building claimed the record. But
it remained the tallest building until it was
surpassed by the World Trade Center, forty years
The history of great bridges is similar. Like
skyscrapers, they followed the improvements of iron
and steel. In 1779, Telford's Iron Bridge
in Shropshire was the first built from improved
British iron. It was only a hundred feet long, but
new ferrous metals now sent bridges racing outward
across the waters.
In 1874, Eads finished the 1550-foot St. Louis Bridge over the
Mississippi. Nine years later the Brooklyn Bridge was more than
twice that length. We had the eight-thousand-foot
Firth of Forth Bridge in
1890. The Golden Gate
Bridge outreached it in 1937.
But, like the excesses of skyscraper building,
bridge-building also cooled as the market crashed.
Hugeness lost its appeal; we saw that we'd been
serving human hubris as much as human need.
The next great boom, the 1960s, produced the
Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the World Trade Center,
and Chicago's Sears Tower. A new boom in the '90s
gave us Kuala Lampur's Petrona Towers, Japan's
great Akashi-Kaikyo bridge, and the øresund bridge system between
Denmark and Sweden.
They're all compelling, less for their dramatic
rendition than for the hope and energy they
express. Of course they reflect human hubris; but
pride and hope go hand in hand.
We need to remember that in these dispirited times.
Gaze at the grandeur of a building or bridge so
overwhelming that we can no longer make out people
at the far end. But people are there. They savor
the same drama; they place their hope in the same
potential for building better lives.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
The statistical data underlying this episode can all
be found on the web. For more on the sudden emergence
of tall structures in the 1880s, see J. H. Lienhard,
Inventing Modern: Growing up with X-Rays,
Skyscrapers, and Tailfins, New York: Oxford
University Press, 2003, see especially Chapters 6 and
World Trade Center and Woolworth Building, Aug.,
1999. (Photo by John
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.