Book Review: The Tower and the Bridge

Lessons from David Billington’s The Tower and the Bridge

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In the continuing series of drawing practical life lessons from the technology around us, here’s the standard disclaimer: no copyright claim on quoted works, fair use for instructional purpose, all rights inure to benefit of holder, etc. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s dive in:

p. 9, “Engineering or technology is the making of things that did not previously exist, whereas science is the discovering of things that have long existed.”

p. 10, “Robert Maillart, the Swiss bridge designer, developed in 1923 a limited theory for one of his arched bridge types which…infuriated many Swiss academics…[because they were so fixed on real forms fitting theory rather than theory describing real forms]…In the United States, by contrast, some of our best engineers understood the general theory well, but not understanding Maillart’s specific ideas, they failed to see how new designs could arise. They were trapped in a view of an engineering analysis which was so complex that it obscured new design possibilities. Today the undue reliance on complex computer analyses can have the same limiting effect on design…”

Don’t ever let people tell you that the answer is right because it came from a computer. Machines were built by people and programmed by people. Since you know people are fallible, then the machines that we build are too. If you’ve done your homework using the right methods, then you’re going to get the right answer, (no matter what your teacher says). That’s no excuse to be cocky, just a reason to have calm confidence in learning the why behind the answers people ask you to figure out.

The failed theory that produced the Tacoma Narrows Suspension Bridge collapse of 1940 is a good example of a general theory that clouded and confused people rather than clarified understanding. The simplistic reason the bridge failed is that wind and on-bridge traffic vibrations set up a standing wave that reinforced itself with every ripple.

It’s like making waves in the bathtub. Time your next push to just meet the water returning, pushing in the same direction, they will add together, make a really cool high wave and hit the wall with a whoosh! Then you get in trouble for getting water all over the floor. Ah well, somebody’s got to clean the floor sometime, might as well have some fun while you’re at it, eh?

Friendships are like bridges you build between two hearts. If you like somebody and you enjoy their company; if they don’t beat your up or call you names, you might become friends with them. Friendships allow us to cross over the bad times of life rather than getting sucked into lose-lose cycles of anger, arguing or blaming. It’s just as bad to blame your self for stuff you can’t change as it is to blame other people.

Healthy competition doesn’t get in the way of friendships, it can actually improve them. Giving your best and having your friend cheer you on when you beat them and you cheer them on when they beat you is most uncommon, but uncommon valor is a common virtue among leaders.

I want to bring in another bridge designer who was a hero of the American Revolution: Thomas Paine. Most people recognize the name as the author of the book, The Rights of Man and the Revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense, yet they don’t realize he was a very influential bridge designer. David Billington says “Paine’s major importance to engineering history lies…in the connection he made between technology and politics, both by seeing his political writings as bridges and by emphasizing in his life the revolutionary impulses of reformer in society and in metal. He saw himself breaking with the past both in politics and in structural design.” [p. 38]

Gustave Eiffel, designer of the Eiffel Tower and surprise (!) many bridges and structures throughout Europe, had a valuable approach to math and calculations. He combined theory with practical testing. “…the more a system is simple, the more one is sure of how the loads will be carried.” I bring this up as the heart of why I chose bridges as the theme of this post. People get along a lot better if they understand what’s going on and know what results they can expect, rather than just assuming or guessing based on bits and pieces of information.

As an example: if you were in charge of designing a bridge near your house that you knew your family was going to be driving on every day, wouldn’t it make sense to know the highest weight (what engineers call stress or loading) that would ever be on the bridge? You want to know what to expect so you can prepare for it, and the bridge will be designed strong enough for the traffic it’s going to bear.

At the same time, you don’t want it to be ugly as a mud dog in springtime. You want to meet three goals at the same time: as light as possible for the strength needed, as cheap as possible and as cool looking as possible. As weird as it sounds, not having enough money is sometimes a better thing than having too much. Throughout The Tower and the Bridge there are examples of elegant designs that are the product of cost-conscious engineers striving to build using minimum materials (less stuff = less cost).

Time and time again, we find that having clear cost targets, driven by a practical yet comprensive budget, yields better results; whether it’s for a baseball team budgeting for player uniforms, gloves, cleats and what not, or for an entire city planning for how many tons of concrete and steel they will need for a highway.

At the risk of repeating myself I want to emphasize this point: being friends with people is all about seeing the good in them from different points of view. A beautiful example of this is in the Garabit Viaduct Eiffel designed in 1884 to span the Truy√®re River 17 km south of St. Flour, France. The crescent supporting the railway gets narrower but deeper as it rises from the supports in the valley. “…handsome in pure profile (its two-dimensional aspect), but in addition, it provides visual surprise and delight from different perspectives (its three-dimensional aspect).” [p. 69]

I’m a big fan of all David Billington’s architectural/structural work and I highly recommend them.

Until next time, keep the faith,


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