Most of us drift through life a
day at a time, our monument being the continuum, the accumulation, the totality
of what we have accomplished. A few
people reach pinnacles; David McCullough is one. He has written a handful of
exceptional books: “Truman,” “The Great Bridge,” “The Johnstown Flood.” Each
publish date marks a waypost of his life.
To me, his
most exceptional work is “The Path Between the Seas,” the epic story of the
building of the Panama Canal. Possibly I really like it because it’s the saga
of an ENGINEERING project and the ENGINEERS who built it.
folks struggled against a harsh physical environment and hostile conditions of
public health and weather. The construction site was a building ground
alternating quicksand-like mud with extremely hard rock. The area was infested
with the pestilent, deadly disease of yellow fever and tropical, debilitating heat.
Panama was, and probably still is, not your best location to do high-quality outside
The severe, decade- long challenge of directing
this immense civil work burned out at least four chief engineers. McCullough
does a great job of bringing these skilled and dedicated people to life, highlighting
their talents, foibles, hopes, triumphs and defeats, their attempts to deal
with the political ramifications of distant critics.
interesting personal detail concerning one of the chief engineers has remained
with me. This fellow was an ardent reader but felt that absorption fell off
drastically after 20 minutes on any topic. So, at any time, he had at least
four books on various subjects by his bed. He would read them for 20 minutes
each before retiring.
On reflection, I had to agree with
this concept of enhancing retention; ever since I have followed his advice. So
on the floor next to my side of the bed at the moment are four books for
“The Shattered Silents,” a 1978 tech
and business history of Hollywood’s conversion to sound, by Alexander Walker;
Park” by Jennet Conant, published in 2003, a history of the private technology
think tank near New York City that in World War II accelerated the Allies’ tech
supremacy and contributed so much to our victory; this was a recommendation by
fellow Radio World contributor Mark Persons;
“The Universal Story,”
a 1987 synopsis by Clive Hirschhorn of the principal movies made by Universal
from its founding, the best or most interesting out of a potential 2,600 films;
“Bridges,” the science and art of the world’s most inspiring
structures, by David Blockley, published last year.
I have to admit that bridge design and construction fall into the realm of mechanical
and civil engineering, not directly in the electrical/communication science
universe that we inhabit; but the pull is strong for engineers. We step back a
few paces, put on the CinemaScope view glasses and think about it: A bridge is
about the biggest machine that any engineer will ever touch. As with
railroading and the space shuttle -- other BIG things -- the attraction is
“Bridges” is extremely interesting, and Blockley
comes at the topic from several directions.
The first covers
the tech aspects, essentially the forces, the materials, the techniques; he
does a great job with this part, although more illustrations would enhance
clarity of exposition. Have you explored or wondered about tower design and
construction? The physics are about the same; a thorough read of this book will
give you a better understanding of why towers stand up.
next is the history and societal place of bridges, which he covers in an
engaging and entertaining manner.
The last is the Zen of
bridge design and construction. Blockley covers the interplay of professionals
who make it happen, the everyday users of these bridges, the societal needs and
impact and, ultimately, the bridge’s place in the universe of man.
Overdone? Not really, when you consider that most bridges link
divergent places and people, for the first time or better than before, essentially
changing the world at that nexus. Sort of what we try to do electronically in
Bridges can be profound; and the concept of bridges
has entered our lexicon such that we talk about the bridge over troubled water,
building bridges between peoples, water under the bridge, etc.
In the Zen section, about the interplay of professionals, he
waxes poetic about “joined-up systems,” those in which people start working
together for a goal (build the best bridge where it is needed, for who really
needs it) rather than for themselves (we’ve all worked at radio stations in
this less-than-efficient category).
In the penultimate
statement he tells us what it’s all about: “We
first need to understand what we are aiming at. I define a joined-up system as
one where we get the right information to the right people at the right time
for the right purpose, in the right form and in the right way.”
The best ideas are the simplest. Again, if you open your mind, the most
and best progress is made when everyone truly works together.
Brockley’s book is a hit with the intelligentsia and available
at most public libraries. My copy was from the local Avon Library in my home town
in Connecticut. I joke with the lady who checks out my selections that the
library card is the most powerful charge card in my wallet … forget Visa,
MasterCard, Discovery or Diners. None of those pieces of plastic gives you
access to most of the knowledge accumulated by man since the start of recorded
data … the raw and extreme power of knowledge.
and your part of it will be the core of the next column as this one is too long
already. See you next month.
The author wrote last
month about the world of connectors, “The Entire Universe, Divided Into
Two Parts.” Charles
S. Fitch, P.E., W2IPI, is a registered professional consultant engineer,
broadcast consultant, licensed master electrical contractor, former radio
station owner and former radio/TV director of engineering. He writes the
columns Certification Corner in Radio World Engineering Extra and Milestones in Radio World.