7 Engineering Triumphs You Can See in the UK
The UK is a country that has long been known for its remarkable engineering. From the astonishing and mysterious structures from the Neolithic, through to the incredible leap forward of the Industrial Revolution, up to the engineering triumphs of the present day. In this article, we take a look at the feats of engineering to look out for when you visit the UK.
1. Stonehenge (3000-2500 BC)
The first British engineering triumph on our list predates the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Great Wall of China and, indeed, the concept of Britain. A popular excursion destination for students on our Oxford summer school, Stonehenge is as ancient as it is mysterious: despite countless investigations by archaeologists, it’s still not clear why it was built, and what it was used for. The same is true of the over 1,300 other remaining stone circles in Britain, Ireland and Brittany; it’s estimated that between 3,300 and 900 BC around 4,000 were built. They may have had a religious significance, though if rituals took place there, they’ve left no archaeological evidence. Similarly, if they were meeting points, such as for government, then that activity has left remarkably little trace.
What’s undoubtedly the case is that it represents an incredible feat of engineering. The stones from which it is made range in weight from four to forty tons – or, to put it another way, from the weight of a 4×4 to nearly the maximum allowed weight of a fully-laden lorry. Some of the stones were transported from quarries over 160 miles away, probably by water and by using wooden rollers over land; the invention of the wheel hadn’t yet reached Britain. The stones were carefully worked to fit together using techniques more often seen in wood-working, representing a huge amount of labour. The stones were then raised probably using earth ramps to lever them into position. This had to be done with incredible precision, because Stonehenge is constructed so that the rising sun at the summer solstice and the setting sun at the winter solstice both align with the stones of the circle. This was a feat of both engineering and astronomy that meant every placement of a stone would need to be exact. And all of this was achieved without writing, the wheel or the use of metal.
2. Ely Cathedral (1328)
Moving forward in time some four thousand years and we come to another spectacular stone construction. Putting a precise date on a cathedral is difficult, because the building we see today is the product of nearly a thousand years of restoration, rebuilding and alteration.
One such alteration was the building of the Octagon Tower, or Lantern as it’s sometimes called. The cathedral had previously had a more standard central tower, dating to the 11th century, but in 1322 this collapsed, perhaps because of work being done on the foundations of the Lady Chapel. Alan of Walsingham, the sacrist who was responsible for the building, was devastated. Instead of replacing the tower like-for-like – perhaps for fear it would collapse again – he led on the construction of the new Octagon Tower. This sits over the crossing of the cathedral without obvious structural support, even though it weighs over 400 tons in wood and lead. Designed by the King’s carpenter, William Hurley, it’s held up by diagonal oak beams that rest on stone pillars, and that brace one another in supporting the structure.
This construction – unique among medieval cathedrals – has proven much stronger than the original tower, and still stands confidently over 650 years later. Not only is it impressive, it’s also strikingly beautiful, as the stained glass in the octagonal section lets in light that bathes the crossing of the cathedral – hence it being referred to as the Lantern.
3. The Mathematical Bridge (1749)
One of Cambridge’s best-known landmarks, the Mathematical Bridge is correctly called the Wooden Bridge, but no one uses that name. In the mid-18th century, there were several wooden bridges of a similar design, but the Cambridge one has survived (more or less) and become the best known. Its survival is more-or-less because the bridge we see today is in fact an exact replica of the original, dating to 1905. Despite being a replica, it’s still Grade II listed. Queens’ College also holds what’s believed to be a model created by the bridge’s designer, William Etheridge, in 1748.
There are lots of myths about the Mathematical Bridge, such as the idea that it was designed by Isaac Newton (he had in fact been dead for 20 years by the time it was designed) or that it’s built without bolts or screws (the bolts are quite clearly visible). Another popular myth is the idea that it had been built without bolts or screws originally, but that students dismantled it to see how it was done, and then couldn’t put it back together again without adding bolts.
These myths are a pity because they mislead about what’s already a very impressive piece of engineering. It is an extremely clever mathematical construction, using several shorter pieces of timber with minimal bending (which causes wood to snap) and the use of compression (under which wood is very strong) to span the river. This is all achieved through tangent and radial trussing, which is well worth investigating if you’re interested in studying Engineering. It has been claimed that any piece of timber on the bridge could be removed and replaced without needing to dismantle or support the other timbers, though this hasn’t been tested in practice. The result, however, is a highly simple, elegant and enduring design, built from relatively inexpensive materials.
4. The drained Fens (1829)
For most of its history, the landscape around Cambridge has looked dramatically different. If you leave the city by train today, you’ll see a flat and arguably unexciting landscape of fields. But until a couple of hundred years ago, you would instead have seen boggy marshland where it was a challenge to make a living, and the environment was deeply unhealthy. The stagnant water of the marshes bred diseases and especially provided a home for malarial mosquitoes. Malaria was endemic across the Fens throughout the Middle Ages, and with no cure, was treated with alcohol and opium, even for children – which left many growing up as addicts.
All of this changed with one of the most ambitious engineering projects ever carried out in Britain. The idea of draining the Fens was an ancient one; even the Romans had attempted it. A major attempt was made in the 17th century, but the drainage was only temporary, and flooding soon filled in the wetland again. It was only from 1799 that a more permanent solution was found. Civil engineer John Rennie deepened rivers, dug drainage canals and suggested relief canals to hold floodwater so that it didn’t spill out onto the fields. At the same time, advances in technology allowed windpumps to be replaced with coal-powered steam engines that drained water much more effectively. The same job is now done by 286 electric pumping stations. They have the capacity to pump 16,500 Olympic swimming pools’ worth of water in a day – keeping the Fens drained, and creating the rich farmland that we see today.
5. The London Underground (1863)
The London Underground was the world’s first underground railway line, initially built using the hugely disruptive cut-and-cover method, where a trench was dug from the surface and then covered over. The first line – the Metropolitan Line – had wooden carriages, lit by gas, and pulled by steam locomotives. Given that, it’s remarkable that there were no major fires on the Underground until after the Second World War. By the 1890s, the method of construction of the growing underground network had switched from cut-and-cover to the ‘shield’ method, where workers dug tunnels from within a protective iron shield; undoubtedly frightening for the workers, but much less disruptive for everyone on the surface. In the same decade the gradual electrification of the Underground began, removing the need for steam engines that left the tunnels choked with smoke.
Londoners may take the Tube for granted, but it has continued that tradition of engineering innovation. In the 1900s, the first electronic ticket machines were introduced; in the 1910s, the first escalators; and in 1929, automatic sliding doors used on the Tube for the first time, so that doors didn’t have to be opened by hand. More recently, the Underground has led the world on electronic ticketing, from the introduction of the Oyster card in 2003 – so travellers could pre-pay on the card, and then simply tap in and out at the barriers – to the more recent change to allow contactless credit or debit cards to be used in place of an Oyster in 2014. Transport for London (TfL) was the first public transport provider in the world to accept contactless payments in this way. This also allows TfL to collect data on passenger journeys that can be used to improve the system further. It might not be as striking as a cathedral, but the Underground has led on a worldwide revolution in public transport since its inception.
6. The Forth Rail Bridge (1890)
The stunning Forth Rail Bridge, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, uses three towers to cross the Firth of Forth. When it was opened, the 521m spans between the towers were individually the longest in the world, and they are still collectively the longest in a multi-span cantilever bridge. However, its notability is not just because of its staggering length, or its impressive industrial design; it also because it’s built out of 55,000 tonnes of mild steel, which in the 1880s when it was being constructed, was a new and innovative material for bridges. The bridge connects the north-east and south-east of Scotland, 14km west of Edinburgh, and now runs parallel to the newer (and less dramatic) Forth Road Bridge.
It’s one of Scotland’s most notable landmarks, and cost £3.2 million to build – approximately £400 million in today’s money. Its construction alone was an impressive feat. Nearly 5,000 workers were employed to build the bridge, and the work was not without danger; 57 worker deaths were officially recorded, but it’s likely that the true number was higher, as this may exclude those employed by subcontractors. The railway cut travel time from London to Aberdeen from 13 to 10.5 hours, though overnight runs managed the journey in an impressive 8.5 hours in 1895. In the modern day, the same rail journey takes around 7 hours (8 or 9 by car) and crossing the Forth Rail Bridge remains a highlight of the trip.
7. The Channel Tunnel (1994)
The longest undersea tunnel in the world, the Channel Tunnel cost £9 billion to build and represents not only a triumph of engineering, but also of international cooperation and diplomacy. It now transports around 20 million passengers and 25 million tonnes of freight every year; a quarter of the trade between continental Europe and the UK passes through the Channel Tunnel. The American Society of Civil Engineers recognises it as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.
Though it’s referred to as “the tunnel”, it actually consists of three parallel tunnels, two for trains (one in each direction) and a third smaller tunnel that allows for ventilation and access. Crossover passages allow trains to switch from one track to another if need be; for instance, for safety. Because the tunnels run through chalk, they can’t just go in a straight line, but instead bend gently up, down, left and right to go through the chalk strata. Tunnel boring machines once managed to get through 75m in a single day, though geological conditions made this much slower on the French side than the British side. Electricity supply, drainage and cooling were also issues for engineers to resolve; the London Underground, for instance, is prone to overheating because of the energy from trains braking heats up the surrounding rock. But though the project was a challenge, and costs were significantly higher than the original budget (making the Channel Tunnel at the time the most expensive engineering project ever undertaken) it has proven an undoubted success. The tunnel cuts journey times by road or sea from London to Paris from 7 hours to just 2.5 hours.
Find out more about incredible engineering in the UK: join us at our Engineering summer school.