7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on February 14, 2005
This book, which is based on a seven-part BBC television series of the same name, is the history of three great British industrial projects (the Bell Rock lighthouse, the Great Eastern steamship, and the sewers of Victorian London) and four American projects (the Transcontinental Railway, the Brooklyn Bridge, Hoover Dam, and the Panama Canal).
It is the lightest of lightweight histories, with very little technical information, and though the stories are compelling, the writing is repetitious, clunking, awful purple stuff. Here are two paragraphs introducing the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge:
For one ferry passenger, John Augustus Roebling, travelling with his 15-year-old son, Washington, an idea began to take shape during those enforced hours spent in the freezing no man's land of ice, with both cities so temptingly near and yet so impossibly out of reach. The river was deep, the currents and tides overwhelmingly difficult, the distance enormous, but John Roebling did not willingly bend to the inconvenience of what was considered impossible. He felt sure he could over these obstacles and build a bridge of strength and beauty such as the world had not yet seen.
John Roebling had come to the New World from Europe to make his mark and everything he did carried his signature of originality. He was a man cast in an heroic mould with the look of some visionary Old Testament prophet, of iron will and sense of purpose and with eyes that saw more than most. As an engineer, he had built bridges before, flinging causeways over preposterous gorges and unbridgeable rivers, turning granite and steel and blood and sweat into practical works of art. His bridges at Pittsburg and Cincinnati were much admired; trains ran over the frothy Niagara on his suspension bridge. And as he waited in the ferry and looked across the ice at the two cities divided, his mind was on fire with a new idea. His brilliant scheme would be admired the world over, a technological revolution in bridge design celebrated both for its incredible strength and beauty - but it would also lead to the ruin of both its creator and his young son. 'A bridge always claims a life,' according to industrial folklore and superstition. Roebling's 'Great Bridge' at Brooklyn would demand an even greater sacrifice.
There are 330 pages like that, a "frothy Niagara" of superlatives and heroics, of "human interest" stories that always feel too contrived, and of much boding fore and aft. Nonetheless, if you are interested in the histories of great industrial projects, you will read all the way to the end before throwing it at the wall and cursing the author and her editor for not trying harder.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 31, 2005
This book left me fascinated by civil engineering, which is a "wonder" in itself, given that the topic has never interested me. Cadbury's descriptions of seven man-made structures read like a collection of magazine feature articles, just longer at about 45 pages per "wonder". I picked up this book only interested in the Bell Rock Lighthouse, but I ended up reading the entire book. Even the story of the Brooklyn Bridge, which seemed uninteresting, captured me from start to finish.
This is not a perfect book. Perhaps the flaws are inevitable given that the original format was television (a BBC series). Visual images might have clarified some of the complex building processes that Cadbury's writing simply did not. Also, although I liked her portraits of the leaders behind each "wonder," I thought her descriptions of the thousands of common workers and their lives were incomplete. If anything, this book will whet your appetite to read a more comprehensive history of a particular "wonder".