Episode 1 The Great Ship – Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s colossal ship, the Great Eastern, is the only wonder described here that has not survived to the 21st century. In the early 1850s, Brunel hoped the ship would be his masterpiece, and that it would provide an enduring link to even the most farflung parts of the empire. His concept became the blue print for ship design for years to come. At a time when most ships moored in the Thames were built to traditional designs in wood, and powered by sail, Brunel’s Great Ship was almost 700 feet long, a floating island made of iron. His vision was that it should carry 4,000 passengers, in magnificent style, as far as the Antipodes, without needing to refuel.
Episode 2 The Brooklyn Bridge – That same year, a brilliant engineer, John Roebling from Germany, won the contract to build the largest bridge in the world, the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. It was to stretch 1,600 feet, in one giant leap, across the wide and turbulent East River that separates New York from Brooklyn. At the time such a bold design seemed almost miraculous. The foundations were to sink 70 feet below the river. The two mighty towers would dwarf much of New York. At the time such a bold design seemed almost miraculous, and all to be built out of a new material, steel.
Episode 3 The Bell Rock – Robert Stevenson’s Bell Rock Lighthouse was created off the east coast of Scotland between 1807 and 1811, when the world was very different from how it is today. Stevenson, the grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson, had dreamed for years of making his mark on the world, by bringing light to the treacherous Scottish coast. He aimed to take on the most dangerous place of all, the Bell Rock, a large reef 11 miles out to sea, dangerously positioned in the approach to the Firth of Forth. In 1799, over 70 ships went down in a violent storm that raged along the coast, yet still the authorities opposed his plan. How could anyone build a lighthouse 11 miles out to sea, on a rock that was submerged by up to 16 feet of water for most of the day? Battling against the odds, Stevenson did eventually build his lighthouse, and to this day it shines out across the North Sea, the oldest offshore lighthouse still standing anywhere in the world.
Episode 4 The Sewer King – In the summer of 1858, while the Great Eastern was being fitted out for her maiden voyage, London was in the grip of a crisis known as the Great Stink. The population had grown rapidly during the first half of the 19th century, yet there had been no provision for sanitation. Three epidemics of cholera had swept through the city, leaving over 30,000 people dead. And sewage was everywhere, piling up in every gully and alleyway, in the cellars of houses in poor districts, and even seeping through cracks in floorboards.
Episode 5 The Panama Canal – With the growth in travel and trade, by the late 19th century shipping had become big business. Having completed the building of the Suez Canal in 1869, a Frenchman, Vicomte Ferdinand de Lesseps, dreamed of an even bolder scheme: the Panama Canal. Lesseps decided he would cut a path across the isthmus of Panama,and thus unite the great oceans of the Atlantic and Pacific. He knew that the long journey around South America’s Cape Horn would then become unnecessary for ships carrying cargo across the world, and the world itself would seem a smaller place. Once out in the tropical heat of Panama, however, the French found themselves facing impenetrable jungle, dangerous mudslides and deathly tropical diseases, as the project proved to be an undertaking of nightmare proportions. The extravagant dream eventually came true, but in the process it stole over 25,000 lives, and 25 years had to elapse before the oceans were finally united.
Episode 6 The Line – By the middle of the 19th century, the benefits brought by the host of advances of the industrial age were gradually beginning to reach America, which soon developed a spectacular achievement of its own, the Transcontinental Railway, reaching right across the continent. With two teams, one building from the east and the other from California in the west, they battled against hostile terrain, hostile inhabitants, civil war and the Wild West. Yet in 1869, the two teams’ tracks were joined, shrinking the whole American continent, as the journey from New York to San Francisco was reduced from months to days.
Episode 7 The Hoover Dam – As pioneers explored and found their way across the vast continent of America, they were frequently stopped by poor or hostile environments such as the desert regions of Arizona and Nevada. In the early 1900s, however, engineers began to realise that even here it would be possible to make the desert bloom, by building a dam across the Colorado River. Some 60 storeys high, and of a larger volume than the Great Pyramid at Giza, the Hoover Dam was soon to break all records. At the height of the depression of the 1930s, poverty stricken workers on the dam, earning just a few dollars a day, died from horrific explosions, carbon monoxide poisoning and heat exhaustion as it slowly came to fruition. The chief engineer, Frank Crowe, did nevertheless get it built ahead of schedule and under budget, notching up one more extraordinary piece of evidence for the ingenuity and tenacity of man.