When a dam holds back over 600 kilometres of the mighty Yangtze River; when a bridge crossing a deep valley withstands winds of over 100 kilometres an hour; when a sports stadium holds up the largest ever retractable roof, the obvious question is, “How?”
Exploring the origin stories behind the colossal Three Gorges Dam in China, the Millau Viaduct in France and the AT&T Stadium in the US, plus five other marvels of engineering around the world, season 2 of Impossible Engineering is as jaw-dropping as it is uplifting. (Excuse more upcoming puns!)
Each episode focuses on one modern-day structure, but takes us back to earlier developments that led to the feat of engineering we marvel at today. It’s this blending of ingenuity across time that gives Impossible Engineering its immense weight of inspiration. Inspiring is an overused adjective, for sure. But here, it’s warranted. It proves that when we cooperate and share great discoveries, be it with our peers or across the ages, we can achieve the impossible. What’s not inspiring about that?
Three Gorges Dam, China
“In [Shanghai] alone the population has grown to 24 million people,” says engineer Yewande Akinola. China needs energy, and plenty of it. To produce it, the Three Gorges Dam was built along the mighty Yangtze, the largest of China’s 23,000 rivers (that’s not a typo). Yewande continues. “The area is prone to catastrophic floods. To lessen the possibility of flood damage and to create a source of clean power, engineers have dreamt of building a dam like this for the last hundred years.”
But to build the biggest dam in the world, the engineers relied on Nikola Tesla’s breakthrough work with the transformer in the late 19th century, and took lessons from the early 1930s’ Hoover Dam. During that construction, the project’s general supervisor, Frank Crowe, came up with a method of cooling concrete quickly, which ensured all the required concrete could be poured and cool evenly in much less time than the estimated 125 years for a dam of that size.
Millau Viaduct, France
Built to avoid heavy traffic between Paris and the Mediterranean coast from passing through the tranquil medieval town of Millau in France’s southern corner, the Millau Viaduct spans a staggering 2 and a half kilometres across the Tarn valley, and at 343 metres above ground, it’s the tallest bridge on the planet.
The project team had “father of civil engineering” John Smeaton’s “ground-breaking formula” for mortar, and to combat the “great enemy of the design of the bridge” – the wind – they turned to civil engineer Sir Gilbert Roberts’ 1950s Severn bridge. Working out how to reduce the wind force on that build “was actually a happy mistake”. The Millau Viaduct profited from it, too.
AT&T Stadium, USA
Spectators will never miss another goal at the footy again at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Working out how to build the world’s largest single-span roof, without any view-obstructing supports, they lent on French engineer Gustave Eiffel’s “simple system of triangles”, which enabled him in the 1870s “to create a structure that was both light and very strong and stable, and had a bigger span than ever before” on a railway bridge that crosses Portugal’s Douro river.
To retract the roof, they repurposed the “simple rack and pinion system” used by 19th-century businessman Sylvester Marsh in his design of the Mount Washington cog railway. While rock climbing there, Marsh became trapped in a storm and dreamed of a railway that could safely take visitors up the steep gradient to the top of the mountain.
As well as these three massive constructions, we’ll learn about the Orion Space Craft on board which NASA wants to go “further than humans have ever gone before” – aiming to send the first people to Mars by 2035. It relies on the humble sextant, a failsafe instrument for all astronauts today, and once used by 18th-century mariners to navigate the seas.
We’ll jump aboard the Oasis Class Cruise Ships, the largest passenger cruise ships on the planet, with capacity to carry up to 9,000 people. To move this baby through the ocean, ship builders relied on Rudolf Diesel’s compression ignition engine, which changed the face of marine propulsion forever.
Zooming up The Shard, the 95-storey pyramid of glass looking down on the expanse of London, we’ll nod to how the building of grain storage silos in Minnesota helped make this tower happen.
We’ll head to Switzerland and burrow straight below the Alps in the longest, deepest rail tunnel ever constructed. The Gotthard Base Tunnel, touted to be one of the greatest construction projects of the 21st century, relied on the cutting-edge work of Alfred Nobel, who stabilised nitroglycerine to create dynamite, changing tunnelling forever.
We’ll stave off claustrophobia in the Virginia Class submarine. This enormous behemoth can dive to 240 metres and stay submerged for months at a time. The most advanced sub ever to be built for the US Navy, it couldn’t have come about without the ground-breaking discovery of electrolysis – enabling the extraction of oxygen from water – by an 18th-century chemist.
You will exhaust and expand your vocabulary of adjectives while watching these stories. It’s a wonderful thing to be awed and feel that together, we can do anything!
Season 2 of Impossible Engineering premieres at 7.35pm, Saturday 26 February on SBS VICELAND. Episodes will be at SBS On Demand after they go to air. Start with episode 1, on the Three Gorges Dam: