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Where are the engineers?
on February 15, 2012
"Colossus" is a colossally long book. It goes into extensive and vivid detail in the following areas:
* The political and social context of the times, giving us a good sense of what life was like in America before and during the Great Depression
* The early visions for the project, based on a desire to tame the Colorado River's flooding, and use its water for agriculture and hydropower
* The political battles involved in making the project possible, including nearly failed negotiations over water rights among the affected Western states
* The business aspects of bidding and completing the project, including succeeding in extracting profit from every possible avenue
* The extremely difficult, and sometimes fatal, working and living conditions of the laborers who built the dam and their families, including life in Boulder City
To my surprise, the book falls short in describing the construction of the dam itself. Of course, information on construction is provided, but not nearly as much as I think is needed and appropriate for a book of this length.
But even more egregious, there's almost no information on the engineering design of the project. The author almost makes it sound like the design of Hoover Dam was a minor task which was completed quickly, with the real "engineering" of the project being completed during construction. As an award-winning dam engineer myself, I can assure you that this is completely false and misleading. The design of the dam was a huge and vital undertaking, at least as important as every other aspect of the project, and I suspect that the author neglected to describe it adequately simply because he lacked the technical background to do so. It's rather unfortunate to see a book written about a landmark engineering achievement which hardly talks about the engineering!
I won't go as far not recommending the book, but beware that it's very incomplete and unbalanced.