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Progress. Progress?

I’m nearly done with the huge, but interesting, story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, and have really enjoyed learning about Washington Roebling, the chief engineer, who started his work on the bridge in his early 30’s and saw it through to completion 14 years later. After the bridge was finished, many people had questions for Roebling, and even though he had been bedridden and housebound for the last 8 years of construction thanks to multiple cases of the bends contracted while working on the foundations under the river and decompressing too fast, he still found time for some pithy replies. My favorite so far is his response to a question from Abram Hewitt, a Trustee of the bridge and future mayor of New York, regarding how the construction of the bridge compared to older accomplishments, such as the pyramids:

“To build his pyramid Cheops packed some pounds of rice into the stomachs of innumerable Egyptians and Israelites. We today would pack some pounds of coal inside steam boilers to do the same thing, and this might be cited as an instance of the superiority of modern civilization over ancient brute force. But when referred to the sun, our true standard of reference, the comparison is naught, because to produce these few pounds of coal required a thousand times more solar energy than to produce the few pounds of rice. We are simply taking advantage of an accidental circumstance.”

That’s a long view that seems even more appropriate today, as we continue to take advantage of accidental circumstance and consume fossil fuels and energy at an ever more increasing rate. We are not getting more for less, just lucky. Roebling then continues with this pointed paragraph, which every engineer could heartily agree with:

“It took Cheops twenty years to build his pyramid, but if he had had a lot of Trustees, contractors, and newspaper reporters to worry him, he might not have finished it by that time. The advantages of modern engineering are in many ways over balanced by the disadvantages of modern civilization.”

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