Sunday, January 27, 2013

Fun with Engineering

A few words about some of the photos toward the end of the video in that last post with video (from Dec. 28).  Part of our walking tour (hey, there's a time and a place to roam free, and there's a time to listen to a guy who knows what he's taking about - some of those things are pretty amazing) involved the Thames Tunnel built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, along with his father Marc Brunel (who actually started the project, came up with the original designs, and whom some claim was the more talented engineer, though history has showered more acclaim on the fils than on the pêre).

Now, I'm not much of an engineering geek, though it doesn't take too too much imagination to envision a world where I might have become one instead of devolving into the theater, music, art and politics geek you see today.  [Ok, so maybe it does take some imagination.  But picture if you will: a charismatic math teacher in my high school rather than the language, drama, and history mavens I ended up with; some acclaim at a science fair or two; and a scholarship to M.I.T.  Throw in a cute girl who was into engineering, and I might not have noticed the social liberation of art and turned my creativity in a different direction.  It's possible.]

In any case, not only did we get a beautiful walk through the world of Oliver Twist, and a well-taught lesson on imperialism, and The Heart of Darkness, we also got a lesson on the immensity of the shipping traffic in London in general (and the piracy that went along with it), which demanded the construction of a structure to take people under a river, at a time when such a thing was unheard-of.  Crossing a river was done via bridges and boats  A tunnel?  Under the Thames??

A tunnel under the Thames.  And a story with a lot more twists, turns, and drama than I'd have guessed would accompany a construction project: from the invention of the caisson (ground too soft to dig a hole substantial enough for tunneling? build a huge stone cylinder so heavy it will just sink into the ground for you, and dig up the dirt as you go along. Genius.) and the tunneling shield, to budget overruns and investor discontent, to dangerous, noxious, and truly filthy working conditions and the inevitable labor strife that rightly go with them, to construction delays, to leaks and breaches and flood, and the chief engineer suffering a stroke.

Let's pause there for a moment.  Say that you're Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  It's 1827, and your team has been working on the first tunnel in the history of the world meant to allow people to pass under a river.  And you're way behind schedule, and the fumes down there are so bad that the workers are striking, and the roof has collapsed and a flood almost killed a bunch of the people on your crew.  And then your father, chief of this whole project, has a stroke.

Now, he is a renowned engineer, and you have access to world class, state-of-the-art medical care.  But let's not forget: it's 1827.  Medical miracles are pretty scarce. The public, and your investors, are, shall we say, a little skittish.

Did I mention that you are nineteen years old?

So what do you do?  You have a 300-foot long tube full of water. Your father has been passing control over the project to you over the last several months, so you assess the damage, repair it, pump out the water from the flood, dry it out, and throw a party.

In the tunnel.  

You throw a party in the tunnel and you invite high society to attend.  Which they do, and the party includes the Duke of Wellington, and it's a rousing success.  And by 'rousing,' I mean 'noisy.'  Because, this being a society banquet, you've also invited a brass band to play in this stone cavern under the river.  And between the band and that silverware clanking against china echoing off the walls, it was probably the loudest non-amplified party in the history of ever.  But I also mean rousing in the sense of magnificent, because this stunt worked: the public was won over, money was raised, and construction began again in earnest.

Oh, and here I guess I have an obligation to point out that the portrait of the Banquet above, by George Jones, is the only contemporary image of Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel that shows them together.  Which is ironical don't you know, because Marc wasn't at that party.  Remember that stroke he had?  Recovery took a while back then.

And then the next year there was another roof collapse and a major, this time truly serious, incident that took 6 lives and very nearly took the life of Isambard Brunel himself.

You guys! This story goes on.  It actually goes on another 15 years before the tunnel even opens to the public.  If you're interested, you can read much more about it here, here, especially here, and plenty of other places. For now, suffice it to say: after that tragic, fatal, flooding catastrophe, they shut down the project for seven years.  The Brunel team finally raised enough money and support to start up construction again in 1835.  They slogged through for another nearly 8 years of setback after messy, dangerous setback, and finally opened to the public in 1843.  [Along the way, they took care to make sure that the first person to make the entire crossing from Rotherhithe to Wapping under the Thames, in June of 1840, was the son of Isambard, grandson of Marc, 3-year-old Henry Brunel.]

And then things got interesting.

The tunnel was not accessible to horse and carriage, so they limited it to foot traffic, and it officially opened in 1843 (about 15 years behind schedule).  Economically meh, culturally fascinating.  Kiosks opened in the archways, and this place became the place to be - 2 million visitors in its first year, global acclaim as the '8th Wonder of the World,' a bustling, thriving thoroughfare under the Thames.  Shops, food, performers, "Fancy Fairs," scientific demonstrations, a vital marketplace and meeting place.

The glamor wore off after a few years, and the shops started to close as attendance declined, leaving vacant archways, which became favorite ambush spots for muggers and trysting places for young lovers and, more commonly, prostitutes.  Then, as sometimes happens in locations of former glory fallen into dilapidation, it became a focal point for adventurous partiers - massive underground gatherings of the young and hip; our amazing guide Robert called them "Victorian Raves"  This detail is harder to find in typical histories and resources, but Robert is one of the curators of the Brunel Museum and shared all kinds of items of interest that might otherwise go unrevealed (props to London Walks for suiting the guide to the walk so well!)

Our Amazing Guide Robert

Finally in 1865, around the time the American Civil War was wrapping up, they laid track through the tunnel, and in 1869 they sealed up the caisson and began running trains through the Brunels' Thames Tunnel, which has been functioning as a railway more or less ever since.

And in 2010, they reopened the caisson to guided visits (you need to grab a rail, clamber down, stepping carefully, pivot round, duck down for a 6-foot long walk through a 4-foot high mini-tunnel before descending the staircase to the open area, but it is open).

And, as chance would have it, they also floodlight the tunnel on Sundays in November.  And we just happened to be there in November, and just happened to be staying in Wapping, near the north end of the tunnel.  [Ok, ok; those are a couple of the reasons we chose, against anyone's educated guess, to spend part of an afternoon on a walk devoted to Rotherhithe, Bermondsey, and this feat of engineering, rather than on things we would have found interesting on our own.]  So we went back to the Overground station (they call it an Overground line, although this stretch of it is clearly underground and, rather famously, under the river.  People also drive on the parkway and park in the driveway) and got those couple of shots of this 8th Wonder of the World.

There you have it.  More about a tunnel than I ever thought I would write.  I'll post our final London video soon...

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