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Big Ideas

May 2024
1min read

Modern Marvels The Greatest Engineering Achievements of the 20th Century

A&E Home Video, 50 minutes each: “Mount Rushmore” “Empire State Building” “Grand Coulee Dam” “Panama Canal”

The Arts & Entertainment cable-TV channel recently aired these four stories of great works of American engineering. Two of the projects—the Grand Coulee Dam and the Panama Canal—were backed from the first by popular Presidents. The others, one of the world’s great sculptures and its then tallest building, began as local efforts that gradually acquired national symbolism. Mount Rushmore started as a scheme to lure vacationers to the byways of South Dakota, but the sculptor its backers enlisted, Gutzon Borglum, was such a dreamer he even wanted to carve Presidents’ complete torsos and a fivehundred-word statement about America.

The four programs convey not only the success of these projects but also their failings. The dirigible mooring mast atop the Empire State Building, added to ensure that the skyscraper would surpass the Chrysler Building, was worthless for tethering airships, which blew nearly perpendicular in Manhattan’s canyon winds.

The series strikes a good balance between technological and social history, showing who planned these monuments, who built them, and why and how they came off so spectacularly.

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