Four Examples of Engineering Genius

As brand new series Impossible Engineering comes to Yesterday, we look at four examples of how human ingenuity has led to the creation of spectacular structures.

Impossible Engineering: Aicraft Carrier

Roman concrete

One of the lasting legacies of the Ancient Romans is architecture. While the sprawling might of their empire has long gone, the poignant ruins of the Colosseum and Pantheon have remained throughout the ages. But how is that, despite the best efforts of lashing weather, furious marauders and even the odd earthquake, these monuments still stand proud today?

It's all down to concrete. Not exactly the most thrilling of subjects at first glance, but Roman concrete is actually a striking example of early engineering brilliance. Roman concrete is a bit of a paradox: on the one hand, it's actually much weaker than the stuff we use today. Yet it's also far more resistant to time and the elements.

That's because of its unique mix of ingredients - in particular, volcanic ash. Ancient engineers wrote of how volcanic ash, known as "pozzolana", was combined with lime to create a sticky sludge able to withstand both chemical and biological decay over time. Even today, scientists are astounded by the sheer resilience of Roman concrete.

Tubular skyscrapers

Skyscrapers have come a long way since the 19th century - literally. Today's mega-buildings soar into the heavens with the kind of ambition that engineers and architects would once only have dreamt of. The tallest of them all is the Burj Khalifa: a silver needle which pierces the Dubai sky at 2,717 feet.

Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world, standing at 2,717 feet.

Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world, standing at 2,717 feet.

The existence of these super-structures is down to one man: Fazlur Rahman Khan, a Bangladeshi-American architect who almost single-handedly spearheaded a skyscraper renaissance in the 1960s.

Until then, very tall landmarks like the Empire State relied on walls built around steel frames. Khan's breakthrough was making the external walls themselves bear the weight using special trusses and supports.

This "tubular" method meant skyscrapers could be stronger and taller, and withstand winds and seismic forces. They could also be more elaborate: by bundling separate "tubes" together, today's architects can create skyscrapers that are like immense sculptures rather than blocky boxes.

The added bonus is that less material is actually required: the Burj Khalifa is almost twice as tall as the Empire State Building, but only required half the amount of steel.

Aircraft carriers

It was the Japanese who pioneered the lethal art of undertaking air raids from the decks of ships. That wasn't in the Second World War, but the Great War. It was in September 1914, when a carrier in the Imperial Japanese Navy called Wakamiya - formerly just a transport ship - launched the world's first plane attacks from the sea.

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However, it was several decades later that the biggest leap forward came in the evolution of aircraft carriers.

This came with the creation of the USS Enterprise, the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, which played a key role during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when the world came within moments of atomic Armageddon.

Surprising as it sounds now, the idea of nuclear-powered naval vessels was originally shoved aside by the top military brass. It took the stubborn efforts of an admiral, Hyman G. Rickover, a rebellious, sharp-tongued and fiercely driven visionary who oversaw the creation of the first nuclear navy. Embracing this form of energy meant that aircraft carriers no longer needed to refuel and could perform missions at a moment's notice, anywhere in the world.

Maglev trains

The idea of floating trains was the stuff of science fiction once upon a time, but pioneering research into electromagnetism in the mid-20th Century has made magnetic levitation or "maglev" trains a reality.

The Shanghai Maglev is the world's fastest passenger train reaching speeds of 268 mph.

The Shanghai Maglev is the world's fastest passenger train reaching speeds of 268 mph.

As there are no wheels involved, the resulting lack of friction means incredible speeds can be reached. The world's fastest passenger train is a maglev in Shanghai which can hit an eye-watering 268 mph.

Which is certainly a far cry from the very first commercial maglev, a slow-moving train that serviced Birmingham Airport in the 1980s and 90s. It's fitting that the UK had the first maglev since the tech was created by British engineer Eric Laithwaite - the man who designed the linear induction motor which in turn led to maglevs.

While Laithwaite never realised his dream of a proper, maglev-based passenger rail service in the UK, the Birmingham Airport maglev was still a great moment in the history of transport technology. And yet, many years after it was decommissioned, one of its carriages was sold on eBay for a paltry £100.

To learn the technological secrets behind other man-made miracles, watch Impossible Engineering which starts at 9pm on Tuesday 26 May on Yesterday.