Returning to structures, another book I have read is about the building of the Hoover Dam. It was actually a Rick Steves podcast that introduced me to the book Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century written by Michael Hiltzik. The author’s interview interested me enough to get the book without any further research on alternate books.
This book told the story of the dam, from conception to completion tracing its history through the three presidents involved—from Theodore Roosevelt who conceived the project, through Herbert Hoover who gave it its name, to Franklin Roosevelt, who was in office when it was completed and ultimately took credit for it. The project, as others from the Depression-New Deal era, represented an engineering marvel of the 20th century that led to an iconic public structure of immense value. For it was the harnessing of water and electrical power by the dam that allowed western cities in this arid climate—Los Angeles, Denver, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and San Diego—to dramatically expand.
This past summer, I was fortunate to get to visit the Hoover Dam but I must credit my brother for making me aware of its close proximity to a previously planned destination. In June, we had a family reunion scheduled for the Lake Mead area north of Las Vegas and it was in casual conversation that he asked if the trip would include a side trip to the Hoover Dam. Looking up its location, I was pleased to find that the dam was a short 30 miles south east of Las Vegas.
I must say that visiting Las Vegas in June is not the most pleasant time of year due to the stifling heat. Without even water to stave off dehydration, my trusty companion—my wife—and I set off walking from the parking garage to the dam. In spite of the 100-degree heat, seeing the dam up close was tremendous and the color of the water of Lake Mead behind the dam, absolutely gorgeous.
As long as we could stand the heat, we took numerous photographs of the dam, but it was ultimately the walkway on the new bypass bridge that afforded the best view and most comprehensive photo opportunity of the massive structure. It was this view, the one on the cover of the book that I most came to see.
I have Rick Steves and his weekly podcast to thank for introducing me to yet another building book, Eiffel’s Tower written by Jill Jonnes. You might recall she also authored the book about the building of Penn Station, which I discussed in a previous installment of this series (she also authored Empires of Light, an intriguing book I read about the race between Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla to electrify the world).
The Eiffel Tower was originally constructed as the entrance to the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Winning out over other engineers, its design was very polarizing from the beginning. Its construction was unique and once completed, stood as the tallest structure in the world at 1,063 feet.
One aspect of this book that I really enjoyed was Jonnes’ interweaving of stories of others who participated in the exposition. From Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, to Thomas Edison, to Vincent Van Gogh—each had a unique part to play in the success of the tower and the exposition as a whole.
Interestingly, Gustave Eiffel only had a permit for his controversial structure to stand for 20 years. Fortunately, appreciation for what it had become to symbolize—French pride and achievement over the United States’ less successful Ferris Wheel at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893—prevented it from being dismantled. I have never been to Paris but plan to in the near future and obviously ascending to the top of the Eiffel Tower will be high on my list of activities.
My final building book is one that I just read this year and one that I have my son-in-law and daughter to thank for giving me as a Christmas present. The Perfect Machine: Building the Palomar Telescope by Ronald Florence is another one of those books that I don’t think I would have found on my own but certainly one that I enjoyed immensely.
This story traces the history from conception of the world’s largest telescope by George Ellery Hale, through the selection of an appropriate site, to the actual design and construction of the telescope and housing structure. Focusing on the key players involved, it tells how each had to overcome technical and engineering challenges to bring the telescope to reality. Of particular interest is the heart of the telescope, its gigantic eye—the 200-inch mirror (almost 17 feet in diameter)—that proved such a challenge to produce.
Beyond just selecting the appropriate material from which to produce the disk, pouring the massive disk proved to be nearly impossible. General Electric was the first company contracted to produce the mirror blank but after several attempts at using quartz glass, failed to produce an acceptable casting. Switching to the Corning Corporation, ultimately it was George McCauley who led the team to successfully produce the disk using Pyrex glass. But this was only after the disk had annealed in an oven for a year slowly cooling the mirror to prevent it from distorting or cracking.
Once it had cooled, the 40-ton disk was loaded onto a special railcar and slowly transported across the country from Corning, NY to the optical lab at Cal Tech in Pasadena, CA. Here, the process of grinding and polishing to form the mirror’s needed parabolic shape took a total of seven years, a slow process also interrupted for several years when the laboratories and scientists were diverted for war support in 1941. As the surface neared its final finish, the polishing was done by hand for only a brief time and then allowed to cool for hours due to the heat build up of the brief rubbing process.
Concurrent to the mirror’s polishing, the mounting and the building were constructed and all the necessary pieces brought together for final assembly on the top of Palomar.
Being a scientist, I was fascinated reading the construction of this monumental machine but what makes the story even more meaningful to me is that my son-in-law, a post-doc at Cal Tech has spent several nights gazing into the heavens using the Palomar Telescope for his research. My daughter has posted a few stories from their visits to Palomar and I hope to accompany them on a trip next year to see this marvelous tool in person. For you see, while I enjoy reading books about building things, I enjoy even more getting to see them in person once I have envisioned the details of their construction in my mind’s eye.