By John Allison, Repost from Pittsburgh Quarterly
Without civil engineers, our world would fall apart. They are hidden brains behind what we civilians take for granted — all the marvelous methods for getting us from here to there, safe and sound. To observe its 100th anniversary, the Pittsburgh section of the American Society of Engineers has produced an indispensable survey of what has been built around here since, oh, 1681. Helpfully illustrated with maps and lush black-and-white photos, it starts with borders for Pennsylvania’s charter and takes us all the way to Uber’s self-driving vehicles, born out of Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute.
The subtitle promises the history of roads, rails, canals and bridges. The “more” is even longer: the formation of Pennsylvania’s borders, public transportation, airports and aviation, drinking water and wastewater, navigation and flood control. The 16 contributing authors are either professional engineers or communications officers from the field. They have all struck a fine balance, giving the reader detailed information and history but not in excruciating detail. This is the best kind of coffee table book. You can pick up a chapter and read one passage, and find out something you are surprised to know by the time your coffee is finished.
Such as: How many bridges are in the city of Pittsburgh? This popular bar trivia question is answered with precision: 370 … to 700. “The total depends on the specific definition of a ‘bridge,’ ” which might sound like a Bill Clintonian answer, but it’s complicated. It’s 370 by “engineering standards,” and 700 if you count ramps, minor structures less than 20 feet, and other crossings that might be considered bridges to the amateur eye. “Any way you count it,” concludes the writer Todd Wilson, P.E., “there are a lot of bridges.” As I said, this book ends up serving the general audience.
Other various stuff I didn’t know: There used to be a 1 million gallon reservoir Downtown where the Allegheny County Courthouse is located today. (To be fair, “used to be” means 1828, way before Downtown had swank.) The first proposal for the University of Pittsburgh’s main campus building was “an interlocking labyrinth of six-story buildings with a skyscraper at one end.” The architect was one Edward P. Mellon, nephew of Andrew and Richard, who had purchased the land for the school. That inside job was somehow sidelined, and Charles Klauder’s Cathedral of Learning watches over Oakland today. And why did no one ever tell me that my high school, Fox Chapel Area, was the site of an airport, Rodgers Field, from 1924 to 1934? Further, Amelia Earhart once landed there — and foreshadowing a famous Pittsburgh’s characteristic, her plane hit a pothole on the landing field.
“Engineering Pittsburgh” will please civil engineers and those who use their products every day.
This article was taken from The Pittsburgh Quarterly. See the original article.
Engineering Pittsburgh is available for purchase.