Human history has seen a multitude of incredible feats. From Leonardo da Vinci to Nikola Tesla to Steve Jobs, creation and invention are core to the human experience. It sets us apart from the animals and gives life flavor and meaning.
What are some of humanity’s most important achievements in construction? There is certainly a long list to choose from, but we’ve narrowed it down to 10 of the greatest.
Each one of these projects required massive coordination and cooperation, in addition to vast quantities of resources and labor. All of these factors came together to produce the magnificent wonders of the world that stand as humanity’s crowning accomplishments.
"We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." - Winston Churchill
1. Stonehenge: 3100 BC
One of the world’s oldest and most recognizable prehistoric monuments, Stonehenge has been revised and reconstructed throughout its history. The original design, however, was constructed around 5,000 years ago in present-day Amesbury, England.
The project began with a circular ditch about 100 meters in diameter with an inner and outer bank. The ditch was then filled with 56 “Aubrey Holes,”intended to hold either timber posts or large stones. Around 100 cremations were also buried throughout the ditch, making Stonehenge the largest Neolithic cemetery in the British Isles.
Stonehenge was changed through the years by war, weather, and workers. The massive stones that we see today replaced timber around 2200 BC. Known as “sarsens,” these stones weigh up to 25 tons and stand 30 feet tall. The smaller stones, or “bluestones,” weigh up to 4 tons. The sarsens were arranged in a large outer circle and inner horseshoe, while the bluestones formed a double arc between them.
How 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.
2. Pyramids of Giza: 2550 BC-2490 BC
The Pyramids of Giza are, without a doubt, some of the most impressive feats of construction in history. In ancient Egypt, pyramids functioned as tombs for the Pharaohs and were filled with everything that the Pharaoh would need for a successful trip through the afterlife. The pyramids weren’t just filled with riches, though. They were also inscribed with hieroglyphics and stunning illustrations and paintings on the inner walls that depicted the life of ancient Egyptians.
The first pyramid was constructed during the reign of Pharaoh Khufu around 2550 BC. Standing at 481 feet, it was the tallest structure in the world for around 3,800 years. Pharaoh Khufu’s great pyramid is estimated to have been built with an astonishing 2.3 million limestone blocks, each weighing between 2.5 to 15 tons.
Even more impressive, though, is the fact that these stones were crafted and transported by hand 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, built by Pharaoh Menkaure, was significantly smaller but featured a more complex inner mortuary temple.
3. Great Wall of China: 770 BC-1644 AD
Spanning across mountains, deserts, and grasslands, the Great Wall of China was constructed over a period of almost a thousand years, from 770 BC to 1644 AD, making it history’s longest-lasting construction project. However, when you start to grasp the sheer size of the structure, it makes sense.
The wall was initially built by soldiers, POWs, criminals, and common people (we can assume most unfortunately weren’t paid, but had they been, they could have benefited from Raken’s time card management tools). 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 materials were seeing a rapid advancement. The Chinese began using large bricks, granite blocks, and massive rocks from surrounding areas which allowed them to build walls 25 feet high and 15-30 feet wide at the base.
The walls were reinforced with mortar made from lime, clay, and rice flour to ensure durability and strength. The Great Wall of China has stood the test of time, having been built over the span of 6 dynasties and stretching 13,170 miles long. It stands as one of humanity’s greatest engineering feats.
4. Panama Canal: 1903-1914
Jumping forward in history, the Panama Canal, built in the early 20th century from 1903-1914 stands as another astonishing feat of construction. Intended as a passageway for ships sailing from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, the canal would make trade routes much faster and more efficient.
The project would require the excavation of 50 miles of land, damming 4 rivers, and the creation of the largest man-made lake in the world by flooding a 123 square mile area. However, the area planned for construction was wild and unforgiving, with its thick jungle terrains, steep mountains prone to dangerous landslides, lakes, tidal shifts, and easily contractible deadly diseases like malaria and yellow fever. The excavation required over 60 million pounds of dynamite to remove over 240 million cubic yards of rock and dirt.
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 would pull into the lock and water would then fill the lock, raising the ship up to about 28 feet. This process is repeated two more times, until the ship is raised to 85 feet, up to the level of Gatun Lake.
Each lock is around 100 feet wide, 1000 feet long, and is made out of solid concrete. In fact, each lock required over 1 million cubic meters of concrete to be built. Check out this video that illustrates how the locks work:
Employing over 75,000 people and costing over $350 million, the Panama Canal goes down in history as one of the largest and most impressive construction projects ever undertaken. The project was completed on August 15th, 1914, and ships still use the canal to this day.
5. Empire State Building: 1930-1931
The United States during the 1930’s saw many unique and impressive construction projects, beginning with the Empire State Building in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. Conceptualized by General Motors executive John J. Raskob, the Empire State Building was planned as an office building to compete with rival Walter Chrysler who, at the time, was building an impressive 1,046-foot skyscraper in East Manhattan known as the Chrysler Building.
Raskob hired up-and-coming architectural firm Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, who in 1929 designed an impressive art deco skyscraper in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, known as the Reynolds Building. The firm used this building as inspiration for the Empire State Building, adapting its design to fit Raskob’s demand for a tower that would stand almost 1,000 feet higher than the Reynolds building and several hundred feet higher than the Chrysler building.
In addition to these lofty goals, Raskob also expected construction to be finished in just 18 months. Had it been available, it’s reasonable to assume that Raskob would have wanted real-time digital daily reports on the progress of his project.
Excavation for the project began in January of 1930, and the builders took an innovative approach to building: fast-track construction. This method sees construction begin on the project before designs are even complete to avoid delays and inflated costs. To accomplish this, hundreds of men worked nonstop, day and night.
Because of this large, well-organized workforce and tactical logistics, the building rose incredibly fast. By focusing on the steel skeleton of the building first, the crew was able to progress at least one story per day, making it the the fastest construction project for its size in history. Specialty subcontractors such as electricians and plumbers worked on the inside of the building while other crews worked on the outside, which was a relatively new method at the time.
Because of the project’s efficient planning, the building was completed in 15 months, three months earlier than its original deadline. Over the course of construction, the project employed 3,500 men and accumulated seven million labor hours in just 15 months. It was also finished under budget, having only spent $24.7 million of the estimated $43 million that would be required. Between the project’s speed, logistics, and efficiency, the Empire State Building isn’t just one of history’s most impressive construction projects, but also one of its most influential.
6. Hoover Dam: 1931-1935
The early 20th century was also a period of rapid development for the southwestern region of the United States. In these remote desert areas, demand for water and hydroelectric power was high. At the same time, the Colorado River caused a series of devastating floods to nearby communities.
This led to the development of the Hoover Dam, which was to be constructed in the Black Canyon on the Nevada-Arizona border. However, before beginning construction on the dam, water had to be diverted.
This was accomplished by blasting the canyon walls and creating 4 diversion tunnels that would channel the water away from the construction site. Working conditions were harsh, with crews working in nearly 140-degree tunnels filled with toxic chemicals and dust. After the tunnels were established, the river was diverted.
Next, crews had to clear and smooth the walls of the dam so that it could fit. For this, they used 40+ pound jackhammers at heights of over 800 feet, while ground crews dug 40 feet further into the ground to access bedrock for a solid foundation. In the end, the workers on the ground excavated over half a million cubic yards of mud and dirt using power shovels and began to pour concrete for the foundation in 1933.
Finally, in 1935, the dam was completed. Gordon Kaufmann, the project architect, made sure that the dam’s design was smooth and appealing, and that its interior paid homage to the Native American cultures whose land it was built upon. The dam stands 726 feet tall (the tallest in its day) and required 6.6 million tons of concrete, enough to pave a 16-foot-wide highway all the way from San Francisco to New York! All of the effort and materials required to complete this project make it a truly impressive feat of early modern engineering.
7. 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. It was an important route destination for travel and cargo. At the time, the only way to get across the strait was via ferry boat, which was time-consuming and inconvenient.
Chief project engineer, Joseph B. Strauss, had an idea for a bridge in the early 1920's, but hit several roadblocks in the form of ferry businesses, who stood to profit from the lack of a bridge, concerned environmentalists, a skeptical engineering community, and budgeting difficulties stemming from the great depression. The area’s geography, which made for violent winds and rocky terrain also posed a challenge. After settling these disputes, though, Strauss raised enough funding to begin construction on January 5, 1933.
To begin, Strauss had to construct two towers that would support the entire weight of the bridge, beginning with the north tower on the banks of Marin County. After this was completed with relative ease, construction crews began work on the more challenging second tower, which had to be constructed 1,100 feet offshore. They used a temporary pier that spanned this distance to make work easier, but it was destroyed twice during the project’s duration.
Workers also had to establish the foundation for the second tower underwater, which posed unique challenges and dangers. Additionally, because each tower weighs 22,000 tons and stands 746 feet above sea level, placement and precision factored significantly in the project.
After the towers were constructed, work began on the cables that would hold up the bridge. These cables were made of thousands of individual wires bound together to create two separate “mega cables.” 27,572 wires were used in total, amounting to around 80,000 miles, which is enough to circle the planet three times! With all of that material, the construction crew could have benefited from Raken’s production tracking features.
A ship would then drag the cables from one side of the strait to the other, and cranes would be used to lift them into “cradles” on the top of the towers that would hold them in position. After the workers finished constructing these mega cables, smaller cables were lowered down from them throughout the bridge to suspend the framing of 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 San Francisco’s infamously thick fog. The bridge was opened on May 27, 1937, and certainly goes down as one of the greatest construction and engineering feats of all time.
8. 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.
Today, drivers across the United States use these highways to make long-distance travel quicker and more convenient. It’s almost hard to imagine an America without them, which bears testimony to the project’s importance.
9. Burj Khalifa: 2004-2010
Hands-down one of the most impressive feats of construction and engineering in history is the recently-constructed Burj Khalifa in Downtown Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Seeking new forms of revenue outside of oil, the government of Dubai wanted to create something truly spectacular to draw tourists to the city. To do this, they would build the tallest building in the world.
Used for offices, residences, hotels, restaurants, observation decks and communication, the Burj Khalifa was inspired by the Empire State Building when Dubai’s ruler visited New York City during the 1960s.
The tower was designed by Adrian Smith, a world-renowned architect from Chicago, and construction began in 2004. The building was designed with a shamrock-shaped base for maximum support and ultimate viewing potential from inside. Samsung Construction was contracted for the job and, after the foundational construction was done, the building began rising in 2005.
It grew at an exponential rate, reaching 30 floors in under a year. Construction picked up speed, and by September 2007, the incomplete structure was already taller than the CN tower, making it the world’s largest freestanding building. It was completed in late 2009, and now stands at a mind-blowing 2,719 feet tall. Construction cost $1.5 billion total, and given the scope of the entire project, it comes as no surprise.
10. International Space Station: 1998-Present
So far, all of these construction projects, even with their lofty goals, have been firmly grounded on planet earth. But in the mid-1980s, humans began looking to space as the new frontier. This took the form of a $150 billion, 460 ton orbiting space station the size of a football field 240 miles above earth’s surface: The International Space Station (ISS). Five teams representing 15 countries have since come together to use 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.
In his State of the Union address in 1984, President Reagan directed NASA to begin construction on the ISS. The size of the station would make it impossible to construct on earth—there simply wasn’t a rocket big enough to propel the entire structure into space—so it had to be launched piece by piece.
In November 1988, Russia launched the first proton rocket, named Zarya, followed closely by the US in December of the same year. The construction process was extremely risky and complex. 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.”
Over the past 20 years, astronauts and cosmonauts from around the world have been living 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.
More to come...
These are only a few of the world’s most impressive feats of construction and engineering—a more comprehensive list would take up several volumes of books. It’s truly amazing to see the progress that humans have made in the methods used and tools employed in construction, and one can only imagine how future generations will continue to innovate!