Blood, sweat and imagination
Seven Wonders of the Industrial World
by Deborah Cadbury
The Guardian, 8 November 2003
The Great Pyramid of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Pharos of Alexandria. These were the seven wonders of the ancient world. The list was drawn up in the Middle Ages with probably as much rancour surrounding it as any team selection by Sven-Goran Eriksson.
Only the Great Pyramid, built around 2560BC, has survived. It is unlikely that any of Deborah Cadbury's seven wonders of the industrial world will last as long. Her magnificent seven are: the Great Eastern, the Bell Rock Lighthouse, Brooklyn Bridge, the London sewers, the Transcontinental Railroad, the Panama Canal and the Hoover Dam.
In fact, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's SS Great Eastern was sold for scrap within 30 years of being launched in 1859. Dubbed the "Crystal Palace of the Seas", it was almost 700ft long, made of iron and held together by three million rivets. On her maiden voyage to New York, the Great Eastern had on board only 38 passengers and a crew of 418. It was designed to carry 4,000 passengers in luxury all the way to Australia, but a catalogue of disasters and the opening of the Suez Canal turned the Great Eastern into a giant white elephant.
While Brunel was busy building his "great ship" on the Isle of Dogs, London was drowning in a sea of excrement as the city's 200,000 cesspits overflowed. By 1854, three outbreaks of cholera had left 30,000 dead. Something had to be done, but only after the "great stink" had forced MPs to flee both parliament and the city in fear of their lives. Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, proposed an ambitious scheme to build an underground network that linked London's 1,000 miles of street-level sewers. The sewage system took 12 years to complete, and as London breathed easier, it was hailed by the Observer, in 1861, as "the most extensive and wonderful work of modern times".
The London sewers may seem like an odd choice, but Cadbury's selection reflects her desire to tell the story of how the modern world was forged "in blood, sweat, and human imagination". There was plenty of all three.
With the exception of the Hoover Dam - constructed during the height of the depression, when poverty-stricken workers died building it ahead of schedule and under budget for a few dollars a day - Cadbury's wonders are products of the industrial revolution, when a worker's life was even cheaper.
None cost more in lives than the Panama Canal, begun by the French in 1880. Within 10 years, the jungle, swamps and tropical diseases had left more than 20,000 dead. But what really mattered to investors was the $280m lost by the time the canal company was declared bankrupt. It was the largest financial collapse of the 19th century and led to the downfall of the French government. Work only started again in 1901, when Theodore Roosevelt realised that a canal was vital for US naval supremacy. The Americans would take 12 years, and another 5,000 lives, before the "longest 50 miles in history" was complete.
Cadbury's earliest and smallest wonder was built during the Napoleonic wars. In 1807, Robert Stevenson started work on the Bell Rock Lighthouse off the east coast of Scotland. The Bell Rock, a large reef 11 miles out to sea, had claimed countless lives as it "breathed abroad an atmosphere of terror". The main problem Stevenson faced was the fact that the Bell Rock lies 16ft beneath the sea for all but three hours of each day. It took four years, more than 2,500 tonnes of stone, and a brave team of men, who received 20 shillings a week, to banish "the blackness enveloping the terrible power of the Bell Rock".
Whereas Stevenson and his men toiled above the water, Washington Roebling faced a mysterious new disease, which his men nicknamed "the bends", as they laboured beneath the East River that divides New York and Brooklyn. Roebling's father, John, had designed the Brooklyn Bridge to connect America's two fastest-growing cities, but died in an accident before work began. It was left to his son to oversee the construction of what would be the longest suspension bridge in the world.
Only three years into the project, Roebling suffered a terrible case of the bends. Lucky to survive, he was too weak to leave his house and had to continue working on the bridge by dictating his instructions to his wife. When the bridge opened in 1883, after 14 years of labour, with the loss of 20 men, Roebling could only watch from his bedroom window.
While "practical visionaries" such as Brunel, Stevenson and Roebling may have been "taking risks and taking society with them as they cut a path to the future", Cadbury never forgets those risking their lives just to survive. What makes this book a compelling read is the heroism and desperation of ordinary men.