Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus

Engineering magic: the hidden stories

A young female engineer will have you looking with wonder at built structures.



Sean Sheehan


Swaying skyscrapers are topped with giant pendulums – the world’s heaviest is Taipei 101’s 660-ton ball of steel –that oscillate during an earthquake and absorb the building’s movement.

The recipe for making concrete was lost to the world for almost a thousand years after the collapse of the Roman empire.

Mexico City is built on what was once a lake, making its earth soft, wet and very weak. The city’s Metropolitan Cathedral slopes upwards as a result, with one corner 2.4m higher than another.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, visiting a dockyard, picked up a damaged piece of timber removed from the hull of a warship.

Observing how “Teredo navalis” |(the naval shipworm) moved and dug through wood with its razor-sharp, shell-like ‘horns’, he got to thinking how a tunnel could be dug under the Thames.

Snippets like these populate Roma Agrawal’s “Built: The hidden stories behind our structures” and with a pleasing regularity that makes it an enjoyable and informative book to read.

Brooklyn Bridge Arild Vågen (WikiCommons)

Sometimes her style of writing verges on dumbing down but this is a virtue for readers deficient in an awareness of basic laws of physics.

What makes her book a pleasure to read is the fascination brought to the subject matter and the variety of stories she is able to tell.

The chapter that features Brunel’s tunnel begins with the underground city of Derinkuyu in Cappadocia and ends with modern tunnel boring machines that are as long as 14 London buses laid end-to-end.

There is an engrossing chapter on how cities deal with their waste matter, beginning with what she calls ‘the turd trade’ in the Tokugawa shogun regime (1603-1868) in Japan.

Human waste collected in the city of Osaka became so valuable as a fertiliser that landlords were given rights to faecal matter produced by their tenants. They were graciously allowed to retain their rights over their urine.

Roma Agrawal (c) Johnny Ring

Being a woman engineer, Agrawal always finds herself outnumbered by men at meetings – ‘the most, I think, was 21 men and me’ – but rather than launch into a feminist cri de coeugo she delivers an encomia to the technically brilliant Emily Warren Roebling, the woman whose exceptional skills were vital in constructing the Brooklyn Bridge.

Her book ends on a rising tide of confidence in engineering’s ability: ‘for whatever we can dream up, engineers can make real’. When deficiencies in the building of a structure are revealed – an account is given of how and why the Twin Towers collapsed in 2001– the moral drawn is that learning from disasters is fundamental to engineering.

Left like that, it sounds almost glib and she is silent about the profit-making imperative that  affect the building and maintenance of structures. What happened to the motorway bridge outside Genoa comes to mind when reading the chapter on different ways of building bridges.

“Built: The hidden stories behind our structures” by Roma Agrawal is published by Bloomsbury


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