Rameses the Great, Abu Simbel, Egypt

Engineering places around the world

Image credit: Dreamstime

In celebration of IET@150 this month, we take a look at what the world has to offer when it comes to marvels of engineering.

Los Alamos, New Mexico, US

Great engineering laboratories are usually in easy-to-get-to places, that is unless you’re very keen that no one knows exactly what it is you’re engineering.

It was this idea that brought Robert Oppenheimer to a private ranch school for boys known as ‘Los Alamos’. Los Alamos was certainly ‘out of the way’ – perched on the Pajarito plateau in north central New Mexico – but more than that, it was near where Oppenheimer had a ranch. He felt the spectacular mountain views would prove inspirational to the physicists and engineers he would bring there.

Salton Sea, California, US

Engineering at its most grand can be an attempt to transform an entire landscape. If and when we terraform other planets, it will be engineers who do the work. However, big plans can have big consequences as we can still see today in California.

The Iron Bridge, Shropshire, UK

Few places can claim a more pivotal role in the Industrial Revolution than Coalbrookdale on the River Severn, Shropshire. At the end of the last Ice Age, the ancient Lake Lapworth burst its banks, carving a deep scar across local deposits of iron ore, coal, limestone and fireclay, laying bare the ingredients for an engineering masterpiece: the Iron Bridge.

Burlington, Wiltshire, UK

Many old Soviet Union technical cities were absent from Russian maps for fear of enemy attention. In the gentle British countryside the same fear led to the construction of the hidden city of Burlington. You won’t find it on a map, but it is still very much there.

Brooklands, Surrey, UK

The ‘Ascot of Motorsport’, this was the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit. It was constructed in Weybridge, Surrey, in 1907 by local landowners Hugh and Ethel Locke King.

Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, UK

Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, head of the Secret Intelligence Service, made Bletchley Park the home of SIS and the Government Code and Cipher School. With no government money available, he bought the site himself.

Savoy Place, London, UK

Savoy Place, originally a joint Examination Hall for the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Surgeons, has a much longer and more notorious history.

Royal Observatory, Greenwich, UK

Back in the 17th century it was not the ‘done’ thing to call yourself an engineer as it had connotations of lowly craft, yet in the Age of Enlightenment engineers were everywhere, known by a different name, particularly on a small hill in the countryside east of London.

Nab Tower, Isle of Wight, UK

Just off the coast of Bembridge on the Isle of Wight, a huge concrete column rises from the seabed on what was once one of the area’s most dangerous reefs – the Nab Rock. It was never intended to be there, but there the 30,000 ton edifice will undoubtedly stay, a silent testimony to one of the most ambitious engineering projects of all time.

‘Shakey Toun’, Perthshire, Scotland

We might expect the modern science of seismology to have begun in California, or perhaps Japan – somewhere where the awesome power of tectonic movement is at its most spectacular. In fact, the story begins in a small village in Scotland in July 1597, when James Melville wrote in his diary: “…ther was an erthquak quhilk maid all the north parts of Scotland to trimble from St Jhonftoun throw Athall, Bredalban and all thefe hie lands to Ros, and therin and Kinteall...”

CERN, Switzerland

Each profession has its great sites and nowhere is this truer than the underground bunkers of the Swiss-French border that are home to the European nuclear physics research centre.

Millau Viaduct, France

Spanning across a gorge valley near a small town in the south of France stands an incredible bridge. Called the Millau Viaduct, it is the tallest bridge structure in Europe. Eight consecutive cable-stayed spans total 2,460m, and its pier and mast are a lofty 343m above ground – around 19m taller than the Eiffel Tower. With a roadway 277m above France’s Tarn river, it was the highest cable-stayed bridge in the world until 2012, when Mexico’s Baluarte Bridge opened.

Horologium Augusti, Rome, Italy

As you walk around Rome today, it’s easy to tell the time – you can check your watch, your phone, or look up at the clocks on a myriad of churches and public buildings. But this was not the case in ancient Rome. Certainly, there were water clocks, but how your average Roman knew when to knock off for lunch was rather more of a mystery.

Narkomfin building, Moscow, Russia

Beyond the street sellers, with their red-star-emblazoned caps for sale, it is hard to find much evidence of the Soviet Union in modern Moscow. There are the dull concrete apartment blocks, but the Kremlin still looks like the medieval fortress it is and St Basil’s looks like, well, St Basil’s. But in one place a small part of the Soviet dream still exists, having somehow avoided attention and destruction in the post-Soviet period.

The Pharos, Alexandria, Egypt

Travel to Alexandria on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast and you will find a modern and rather unromantic city. Clogged with traffic and choked with concrete apartment blocks, there is almost no evidence of the beautiful Hellenistic city that was once the intellectual hub of the ancient world and home to one of the greatest engineering wonders of the age.

Abu Simbel, Egypt

Egypt is, of course, full of engineering wonders, but perhaps the greatest is in the most unlikely place, and how it got there is a remarkable engineering feat. Ancient Egypt was a land of extravagant architectural gestures, but few Pharaohs came close to Rameses the Great (c1303-c1213 BC) when it came to proclaiming his glory in stone and nowhere did he do this better than in the temples he built at Abu Simbel.

Baikonur, Kazakhstan

In the middle of the vast Kazakh steppe stands what is simultaneously one of the world’s most famous and least-known engineering sites – the Baikonur Cosmodrome – and that peculiar history has much to do with its origins. By 1954, the Soviet Union needed a new missile test facility that had to be secret, secure and offer the vast distances needed to test these weapons, a long way from the prying eyes of American U2 pilots.

The Grand Canal, China

In terms of engineering, one site is synonymous with China – the Great Wall. Yet it is still possible to trace out of the ground another, arguably greater, wonder – the 1,795km-long Grand Canal.

Sydney Opera House, Australia

The iconic white sails seen from Sydney Harbour are a mesmerising sight to many who visit the ‘Land Down Under’. The sculptural elegance of the Sydney Opera House, which fuses ancient and modern influence, made it one of the most recognisable buildings of the 20th century, and it still stands at the harbour in all its architectural glory.

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