10 Incredible Feats in Construction History
In the history of mankind, there have been a multitude of incredible accomplishments. From Picasso to Henry Ford to Steve Jobs... there have been so many amazing things done, created, established, developed, implemented, built, and invented throughout the years. Humans really are incredible. So, due to our love for all things construction, what better aspect of history to look at than some of the monumental construction, architecture, and engineering achievements of all time?
Each of the following wonders were built in different time periods of history, meaning that resources, manpower, equipment, environment, and many other factors were all different from one another. With that in mind, there's no point in ranking them on which is the most incredible. Rather, we'll go ahead and take a look at them in chronological order, from 3100 BC to the future, acknowledging that they are all amazing accomplishments.
"We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." - Winston Churchill
- Stonehenge: 3100 BC
Stonehenge is one of the oldest and most memorable pre-historic monuments in the world. The history of Stonehenge includes multiple revisions and reconstruction throughout time, but the initial design was established about 5000 years ago in Amesbury, England. Stonehenge began with a circular ditch about 100 meters in diameter with an inner and outer bank. The ditch was filled with 56 Aubrey Holes, which were intended to hold either timber posts or large stones. Buried throughout the ditch were over 100 cremations, making Stonehenge the largest Neolithic cemetery in the British Isles.
Over the centuries, through war, weather, and reconstruction, Stonehenge changed in shape and structure. Around 2200 BC, timber was replaced with the massive stones that we see today. The large stones are called "sarsens", weighing up to 25 tons and standing 30 feet tall. The smaller are "bluestones", weighing up to 4 tons. The sarsens were arranged in a large outer circle and an inner horseshoe while the bluestones were set up in between them in a double arc. The means by which these colossal stones were lifted and put into place remains a mystery. Considering the significant lack of any kind of building technology at the time, Stonehenge stands as one of the most legendary feats of architecture in the world.
- Pyramids of Giza: 2550 BC-2490 BC
Some of the most impressive and monumental feats of construction in history are without a doubt the Pyramids of Giza. Pyramids were established as tombs for the Pharaohs of Egypt, to fill with everything that the Pharaoh would need for a successful trip through the afterlife. But not only were the pyramids filled with riches, they were inscribed with hieroglyphics and incredible illustrations and paintings on the inner walls that depicted the life of ancient Egyptians.
The first pyramid was built under the rule of Pharaoh Khufu around 2550 BC and reaches 481 feet at it's highest point, being the tallest structure in history for about 3,800 years following its construction. Pharaoh Khufu's great pyramid is estimated to have been built with an unfathomable 2.3 million limestone blocks, each weighing anywhere from 2.5 to 15 tons. Even more astounding is the fact that these were crafted and transported by human hands from over 500 miles away. Khufu's son, Pharaoh Khafre, built the second pyramid which was smaller than his predecessor's, but equally impressive. The third was built by Pharaoh Menkaure. It was significantly smaller, but featured a more complex inner mortuary temple. There are some mind-blowing facts about the precision and accuracy of these structures including the fact that "The outer mantle was composed of 144,000 casing stones, all of them highly polished and flat to an accuracy of 1/100th of an inch, about 100 inches thick and weighing approx. 15 tons each."
Not much else is known about the logistics and how exactly these pyramids were constructed. There are many viable theories that provide logical explanations, but none are certain. Nonetheless, the Pyramids of Giza stand as some of the most remarkable feats of construction and architecture in all of history.
- Great Wall of China: 770 BC-1644 AD
Spanning across mountains, deserts, grasslands, and the many diverse regions is the Great Wall of China. Beginning around 770 BC and ending around 1644 AD, the Great Wall of China has the longest history of construction in the world. The wall was initially built by soldiers, POW's, criminals, and common people. The Chinese were very resourceful when it came to building materials as much of the Great Wall was constructed with rammed earth consisting of rich native soil, which actually proved to be strong enough to last through the ages. The workers used a technique called hangtu to build the wall which involved pouring gravel and earth into wooden molds, compacting, and adding until it was at the desired height and density:
In the 14 century during the Ming Dynasty, building techniques and material sophistication became much greater. The Chinese started using large bricks, blocks of granite, and massive rocks form the surrounding area which allowed them to build walls 25 feet in height and 15-30 feet wide at the base. The walls were reinforced with a mortar made up of lime, clay, and rice flour to ensure extra durability and strength. The Great Wall of China has stood the test of time. Built over the span of over 6 dynasties, and with a total length of 13,170 miles, the Great Wall of China lands itself on our list as a unique and monumental feat in construction history.
- Panama Canal: 1903-1914
Not to discredit the builders guilds of the renaissance or the amazing amount of construction and architectural feats in the centuries following the Great Wall of China, but lets jump ahead to the beginning of the 20th century and look at The Panama Canal. The Panama Canal was constructed with intent of connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean to make for a much faster route for travel and trade. This project consisted of excavating a 50 mile stretch of land, damming 4 rivers, and creating the largest man-made lake by flooding a 123 square mile area, all with an extremely unforgiving and difficult natural environment. The land in between oceans contained thick jungle terrain combined with lakes and steep mountains which created an environment prone to landslides, tidal shifts, and easily contractable, deadly diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. During the excavation process, more than 60 million pounds of dynamite were used to excavate the 240 million cubic yards of rock and dirt needed to make way for the new canal.
To overcome the difference in water levels across the Panama Canal, massive locks (essentially ship elevators) were installed at each end of the canal. Ships pull into the lock and water is filled into the lock to raise the ship about 28 feet. This process is done three times in a row until the ship raises 85 feet up to the level of Gatun Lake. These locks are each 100 feet wide, 1000 feet long, and made out of solid concrete. In fact, over 1 million cubic meters of concrete was needed to build each lock. Check out this video of how these locks work:
After employing over 75,000 people and costing over $350 million, the project was complete. The Panama Canal was opened on August 15th, 1914 and goes down as one of the greatest construction and mechanical engineering feats in history as well as a significant staple in intercontinental trade.
- Empire State Building: 1930-1931
The 1930's in the United States saw a lot of amazing construction feats, beginning with the Empire State Building in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. The Empire State building was conceptualized by General Motors executive John J. Raskob. He wanted to construct an office building in downtown New York to compete with his rival Walter Chrysler who, at the time, was constructing the 1,046 foot Chrysler Building in East Manhattan. For the architectural design, Raskob went to Shreve, Lamb & Harmon Associates, the best skyscraper architects in the area, and devised an ambitious plan of erecting the Empire State Building higher than the Chrysler Building and finishing before it as well. They wanted to have the building finished in a matter of only 18 short months.
The excavation phase of the project began in January of 1930 and took an innovative approach to building: fast-track construction. Fast-track construction is when the actual construction process begins before the designs are complete in order to reduce delays and inflated costs. The project employed hundreds of men that worked nonstop, day and night, to ensure the fastest possible construction process. Due to tactical logistics and an exceptionally well-organized work force, the building rose incredibly fast. While constructing the steel skeleton of the building, the crews were making progress of at least a story a day, the fastest construction in history for a job of that size. From the organization of manpower used to the material logistics, the project was an amazing feat of efficiency in every aspect. To add to the fast-track construction efficiency, specialty 'subcontractors' such as electricians and plumbers worked to install the necessary internal components while other crews worked on constructing the outside of the building.
With so much efficient work happening on all parts of the project around the clock, the project was complete in 15 months, beating the deadline by an impressive three months. The project required a workforce of 3,500 men and an accumulation of seven million manpower hours in the short 15 months. Due to economic circumstances, the project was also finished well under budget at $24.7 million down from the estimation of $43 million. The speed of construction, the logistics of the project, and the ability to finish under budget and ahead of schedule makes the Empire State Building one of the most impressive feats of construction in all of history.
- Hoover Dam: 1931-1935
The early 1900's also showed a dramatic rise in development in the southwestern region of the United States. This development brought a brimming demand for water and hydroelectricity. At the same time, the Colorado River was causing a series of disastrous floods and the river needed to be tamed in order to effectively control it's rich resources. Enter Hoover Dam. The location set for construction was Black Canyon, sitting right on the Nevada-Arizona border. In order to begin construction of the dam, the flow of water needed to be diverted.
The initial step was to blast the canyon walls and create 4 diversion tunnels that would channel the water away from the construction site. Working conditions were harsh as ever with crews working hard in nearly 140 degree tunnels filled with toxic chemicals and dust. After the tunnels were established, the river was diverted.
Crews of workers then needed to clear and smooth the walls that would nestle the dam to ensure a perfect fit. They used 40+ pound jackhammers to excavate the sides of the walls from over 800 feet above the canyon floor while workers on ground level focused on digging 40 feet below the surface to access bedrock for foundation of the monstrous dam. The workers below excavated over half a million cubic yards of mud and dirt by using power shovels and in 1933, began to pour concrete for the base foundation.
Over the span of two years, the dam rose up and was completed in the summer of 1935. The project architect, Gordon Kaufmann, ensured that the dam had a smooth, majestic design and that the interior payed homage to Native American cultures. Overall, the dam stands 726 feet tall (the tallest of it's time) and was constructed with 6.6 million tons of concrete which is enough concrete to pave a 16 feet wide highway all the way from San Francisco to New York! Check out these amazing photos from the construction of the dam for more perspective. The construction process, design, hardship, setting, and precision of the Hoover Dam qualifies it as one of the most impressive feats in construction and architecture of all time.
- Golden Gate Bridge: 1933-1937
Around the same time that the Hoover Dam and Empire State Building were being constructed, big things were also happening on the central coast of California in San Francisco. The Golden Gate Strait is the body of water that separates Marin County from the city of San Francisco and leads out into the Pacific Ocean. The strait was a massive route destination for travel and cargo ports for trade. At the time, the only way to get across the strait was by ferry boat, which as you can imagine, was quite inconvenient. Chief project engineer, Joseph B. Strauss, took on the vision for the bridge in the early 1920's and went through many pushbacks with environmentalists, ferry businesses, a doubtful engineering community, and budget difficulties due to the Great Depression. On top of the social difficulties, the environmental difficulties were even more severe. The geography of the area made for consistently violent winds, heavy storms, dense fog and overall very challenging circumstances for anything, let alone nautical construction. After settling all disputes, accepting the challenge, and raising funding for the bridge, construction was underway as of January 5th, 1933.
The first order of business was to erect the two towers that would support the entire weight of the bridge, starting with the north tower on the banks of Marin County. After the first (and easier) bridge was constructed, the second tower's construction began. This was much more difficult, as they needed to establish the tower 1,100 feet off shore into the strait. A temporary pier was built out to the desired location of the tower (which was destroyed twice during construction) and workers had to establish the foundation underwater, making the second tower a dangerous and difficult feat. And because each tower weighs 22,000 tons and stands 746 feet above sea level, placement and precision were everything.
Next was the addition of the cables that would hold up the bridge. The cables consisted of thousands of individual wires that were bound together to create two separate mega cables. All in all, 27,572 wires were used, totalling in 80,000 miles of wire (thats enough to circle the planet three times). A ship would drag the initial wires from one side of the strait to the other and cranes were used to hoist the cables up to the top of the towers where they were locked into cradles that would hold the cables. After the workers constructed the two mega cables, smaller cables were lowered down throughout the bridge to suspend the framing for the road.
Once the whole frame was suspended, the framing mold was filled with concrete, and the bridge was close to completion. The workers covered the bridge with a heavy, weather sealed paint with a brass-orange color known as 'international orange' for optimum visibility through the infamous thick fog and weather of San Francisco. The bridge was opened on May 27, 1937, and certainly goes down as one of the greatest construction and engineering feats of all time.
- United States Interstate Highway System: 1956-1992
Following World War II, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 which he conceptualized based on the network of highways he saw in Germany during the war. The plan was to create a network of interstate highways across America that would create routes for economic stimulation, transportation, infantry mobilization, and disaster evacuation.
- Burj Khalifa: 2004-2010
Without a doubt, one of the most impressive feats of construction in history is the recently constructed Burj Khalifa in Downtown Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The government of Dubai wanted to reduce the reliance on oil trade by creating a spectacle for increased tourism revenue, create a staple of Dubai that will gain and attract major awareness, and bring the title of 'tallest building in the world' back to the United Arab Emirates. The building is used for offices, residential areas, hotels, restaurants, observation decks, and communication. Fun fact: the Burj Khalifa was inspired by the Empire State Building when the ruler of Dubai visited New York City in the 1960's.
Designed by Adrian Smith, a world renown architect from Chicago, the foundational design of the Burj Khalifa began in 2004. The building was designed with a shamrock-shaped base for maximum support as well as ultimate viewing potential from the inside. Samsung Construction was contracted for the job and after the foundational construction was done, the building started to rise in 2005. The building grew at an exceptional rate of 30 floors in less than a year and was picking up even more speed. In September 2007, while still growing quickly, the new skyscraper surpassed the CN Tower, taking the title of the largest free standing structure in the world. By late 2009, the Burj Khalif was complete and stands a mind-blowing 2,719 feet tall, costing a total of $1.5 billion. The height of the building, the design, and the speed of which it was constructed easily earns it a spot on our list of the most incredible feats of construction in history.
- International Space Station: 1998-Present
As if construction, logistics, and engineering weren't difficult enough on Earth, humans decided to take operations into space in the form of a $150 billion, 460 ton orbiting space station the size of a football field 240 miles above Earth: The International Space Station (ISS). Five teams representing 15 countries have come together to assimilate this massive research vessel in outer space. The International Space Station's purpose is for government initiatives, space research, and exploration of other worlds in mankind's efforts to expand beyond our planet.
President Reagan directed NASA to begin construction on the ISS in his State of the Union speech in 1984. The station is so massive that it could not be totally constructed on earth, there are simply no rockets imaginable that could propel the full station into space. So, it needed to be launched into space piece by piece. In November 1998, Russia launched the first proton rocket named Zarya, followed closely by the US in December of 1998. Over the past 20 years, astronauts and cosmonauts from around the world have been living up on the ISS building, developing, and preparing the station for research and exploration. Many additions to the ISS have been launched from Earth and added on to the structure to make it the massive structure it is today, and more additions are to come in the future.
One can only imagine how complex, technical, and risky it is to build a massive station in space the size of a football field. NASA station program manager Mike Suffredini said, “It’s like building a ship in the middle of the ocean from the keel up. You’ve got to float and you’ve got to sail. All this has to occur while you’re actually building the ship, and that’s what the station is like.”
Since it's inception, the ISS has added laboratories and various research facilities in hopes to study and make improvements in physics, biology, and astronomy. We can appreciate the amazing accomplishment this is for mankind in the areas of science but also construction and engineering.
Well there you have it, some of the most incredible feats of construction, engineering, and architecture in all of history. Some old, some new, but all are amazing in their own ways. Humans really are incredible and it's always worth while to look into the past to remind ourselves of what mankind has accomplished so far in order to realize how limitless our possibilities truly are.
- Stonehenge History
- English Heritage: Stonehenge
- Pyramid Construction
- Pyramid Mysteries
- 25 Pyramid Facts
- Great Wall of China Construction
- Panama Canal History
- Building the Panama Canal
- Hoover Dam History
- Golden Gate Bridge History
- Interstate Highway History and Construction
- Burj Khalifa Facts and Construction
- International Space Station Information