A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Hands up everyone who’s ever really liked a television series, bought the TV tie-in book and then, having thumbed through it once, never looked at it again – or worse, found that it added nothing to the series and was in fact just money down the drain.
Yes. Thought so. A not uncommon experience.
In 2003 the BBC screened a ground-breaking seven-part documentary series called Seven Wonders of the Industrial World. Using a combination of contemporary diaries, newspaper reports, memoirs and original photographs and grainy film footage all linked together with live action and CGI, it told the story of the creation of seven landmarks of the Industrial Revolution. Normally, documentaries with ‘re-enactments’ feature dodgy acting, limping scripts and bad wigs. Not this time. With actors of the calibre of Steven Berkoff, Jay Benedict, Robert Cavanah, Mark McGann and Robert Lindsay, it was the BBC at the top of its game.
The producer of the series was Deborah Cadbury – the best-selling author of The Dinosaur Hunters and The Lost King of France. She helped choose the ‘Seven Wonders’ and was writing the book even as she was producing the series.
Her research into how our modern world was shaped by the blood, sweat, tears, grease and rivets of the industrial pioneers produced far more detailed information than could ever be comfortably incorporated into the seven 50 minute episodes and – happily for us – a lot of the overflow ended up in this supremely well-written book. It is not, in other words, a simple reworking of the series but a true companion to it, fleshing out the leading figures, adding depth and perspective to the background and helping her readers to understand – in some cases possibly for the first time – just how extraordinary their achievements were.
Familiarity famously breeds contempt. We have never known a world in which there was not a Brooklyn Bridge, or a Bell Rock lighthouse. The Great Eastern was a bit of a white elephant, wasn’t it? … We don’t even think about the London sewers, or the Transcontinental Railroad, and the Panama Canal and the Hoover Dam … well, they’re just a canal and a dam, aren’t they – nothing to get excited about. Right?
They were, in fact, monumental projects on a then unimaginable scale, undertaken against overwhelming odds, wrought with the most basic of tools and – in many cases – paid for in human lives. They destroyed not only the labourers who wielded the picks and shovels, but sometimes also the men whose creative genius, self-belief and sheer bloody-mindedness were the beating heart of the industrial revolution itself.
All of the stories in Seven Wonders are compulsively readable, because Cadbury is a master story-teller, but the most fascinating are those that field the strongest characters.
The Brooklyn Bridge was the work of the Roeblings. John Roebling died before construction of the massive bridge across the East River had even commenced – killed by his own wrong-headedness when he refused to have crushed toes amputated. His place as Chief Engineer was taken by his son, Washington, whose own health was destroyed by Caissons Disease – what we now know as ‘the bends’ – contracted as he supervised work on the foundations, deep in the river. That might have been the end of the Roebling family’s involvement in the bridge, had it not been for Washington’s utterly extraordinary wife Emily, who became his eyes, ears and brain and took over the supervision of the construction work, seeing it to its completion.
Joseph Bazalgette must have saved thousands upon thousands of lives, and yet his name is almost forgotten today, because this kindly, modest and intelligent man was the far-sighted engineer behind one of the most unglamorous civil engineering projects of the Victorian age … the construction of the London Sewers.
Over 6,000 Londoners died in the 1831 cholera epidemic. The 1848/49 outbreak claimed another 14,000. When Bazalgette’s new sewers finally became operational in 1871, cholera was eradicated almost overnight – but the uphill battle he faced to build the sewers was beyond belief. The section of the book that deals with the story of the London sewers is not only about Bazalgette, however. It also tells the story of the other – at the time unsung – hero of the defeat of cholera, Dr John Snow. He it was who correctly identified polluted water as cause of the disease, and said that the simple expedient of boiling it would destroy the infecting organism. His opinion went unheeded, and he died without ever knowing for sure that he was right. He lived, worked and died literally just a few minutes from Joseph Bazalgette, but they never met. Bazalgette removed the source of the water pollution, but he believed that cholera was carried on the ‘foul vapours’.
He did the right thing for the wrong reason. The irony probably wasn’t lost on him.
The Bell Rock lies at the mouth of the Firth of Forth, hidden for most of the day beneath a few feet of water. It only breaks surface twice a day at low tide. Repeated attempts to erect a warning beacon of some kind on the rock were simply destroyed by the sea – and over the centuries it claimed the lives of hundreds of seafarers. Robert Stevenson (grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson) was a man with a dream – to build a lighthouse on the Bell Rock and banish the lethal darkness forever.
The man placed in overall charge of the construction was John Rennie, but his knowledge of lighthouses was only theoretical. He had never built one. Stevenson had … and the resultant clash of wills – with Stevenson persistently out-manoeuvring Rennie – is one of the things that makes the story of the Bell Rock so fascinating. Construction – taking advantage of those infamous two-hour windows when the rock was above water – started in 1807. It was finally completed in 1811. The light from the Bell Rock – the oldest offshore lighthouse in the world – still shines out over the Firth of Forth to this day.
Water was the problem in the south-western United States, too – the 740 billion cubic feet of it that poured down the Colorado River every year, to be precise. In flood the Colorado is a terrifying creature, and early attempts to control it in the 19th Century resulted in disaster, but the US Bureau of Reclamation knew that if the power of the Colorado could be harnessed, the benefits would be massive. The man who tamed the river for them was legendary civil engineer Frank Crowe – a ruthless genius who let nothing and no-one stand in his way … not solid rock, not the Colorado River, not even the Wobblies.
The dam was built at the height of the Great Depression. The workers – who laboured in appalling conditions – were in no position to make demands, and Crowe knew it. He called their bluff and won almost every time. They worked 24 hours a day in shifts. The air in the river diversion tunnels was thick with exhaust fumes that caused carbon-monoxide poisoning. The temperatures rose to 120 – 150 degrees. The families living in the shanty towns around the dam site died from heatstroke. High scalers, working 900 feet above the canyon floor, fell to their deaths or were brained by falling rock … but through it all, ‘Hurry Up’ Crowe kept piling on the pressure.
According to Bureau of Reclamation figures, 107 men lost their lives during the construction of the dam – but the total may well have been much higher.
Crowe completed the Hoover Dam two years ahead of schedule, earning himself a $350,000 bonus (equivalent to about $4,000,000 today). He moved on to still larger and more impressive dams, but the Hoover remains his greatest and most famous monument. It was only a dam, but it was – as the construction consortium’s president William Wattis famously said – a damn big dam.
Whatever your feelings about the Industrial Revolution – it happened, and for good or ill it changed our world forever.
Seven Wonders of the Industrial World only scratches the surface of the cataclysmic upheaval that took place in the 19th and early 20th Centuries – and doesn’t turn a blind eye to the downside – but in concentrating on just seven projects in detail and incorporating contemporary accounts, it’s far more informative, educational, thought provoking and – dare I say it – entertaining than many longer, worthier works.
If YOU still have it sitting on your shelf … Get it down and read it. Please.
There are several different editions of this book still available. Mine is a paperback published by: Harper Perennial. 2003. ISBN: 0-00-716305-3. 394pp.
Should you wish to catch up with the series, that too is still readily available: Seven Wonders Of The Industrial World .