Books : reviews

Stephen Ressler.
Understanding the World's Greatest Structures: science and innovation from antiquity to modernity.
Great Courses. 2011

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 2 May 2021

This is the course guidebook that accompanies the 24 lecture “Great Course” of the same name. It is essentially an abbreviated transcript of each lecture, a few pictures, and some related reading. (I watched the lectures, which is what I am reviewing here, and am using the book simply as an aide-memoire.)

This is one of the best Great Courses so far. The topic is interesting, well-presented, and has made me look at buildings in a new way. Architects are most interested in form (what it looks like) and sometimes make a nod to function (how it works and is used); engineers emphasise structure (how it it put together, and why it stands up).

Ressler starts off with some background material, explaining the engineering maths behind columns, beams, arches, and trusses, and the importance of tension, compression, and buckling in structures. It could have been very dry, but he illustrates all the points with diagrams and physical models, making it all vividly intuitive. [flat arch] For example, we learn that Trajan’s column, or any other stone column, could be a mile high before the compression crushes the material; it buckles much sooner, though, unfortunately. And we learn why gothic arches are narrower than Roman arches, and even that arches can be flat.

He then goes on to talk about particular buildings and bridges that exhibit these features, and how they have evolved through the ages. That he has kept the technicalities relatively simple is clear when he talks about structures formed from shells: there are a couple of models, but no equations.

Importantly, he shows how before the engineering mathematics was known, engineers still built extremely impressive structures using empirical knowledge. Once the maths was known, the designs could become more ambitious, but that pragmatic knowledge was still important (as demonstrated by some equally impressive failures).

Great stuff, and I’m now looking forward to watching Everyday Engineering.

Stephen Ressler.
Understanding Greek and Roman Technology: from catapult to the Pantheon.
Great Courses. 2014

Stephen Ressler.
Everyday Engineering: understanding the marvels of daily life.
Great Courses. 2015

Our world is full of engineering marvels. Explore the workings of the fascinating buildings, devices, and public utilities that we use every day.