I know it sounds like the most boring thing you ever sat through in seventh grade, but believe me it isn’t. Many of you are probably familiar with this video; I wasn’t, and I was awestruck by what I was seeing.
Through an artful blending of reenactment, narration, and original photographs, a gripping story is told of the building of seven engineering accomplishments of the pre-digital age: the London Sewer system (1854), the Hoover Dam (1931), the Transcontinental Railroad (1869), the Panama Canal, (1914) the Brooklyn Bridge (1883), the Bell Rock Lighthouse (1810), and the iron ship the SS Great Eastern ( 1858). As you might expect from a BBC production, the acting is superb and because the words the actors speak are taken from documents of the time, there is never a false note. In many cases, the actors even look like the principals they represent.
The documentary certainly disabuses us of any notion we might have that extraordinary engineering accomplishment necessarily involves the use of computers, though it should be said that today we would not tolerate the level of human suffering and loss of life that occurred in the building of most of these wonders.
What awed me was not only the builders’ technical skill and imaginative vision but the confidence it took to undertake such ventures and the perseverance needed to see them through to completion.
And the fact that all but one of these accomplishments is still with us, doing the job for which it was intended, is truly amazing. (The Great Eastern steamship was broken up in 1889; I found its story the least interesting of all, probably for that very reason.)
Since I lived on the banks of the Panama Canal for twenty years, I was particularly interested to see how they presented that engineering marvel. I can easily give it five stars. I’ve seen a lot of pictures and film of Canal construction days, but I had never seen some of the footage in this film. The Canal, incidentally, was a project that came in under budget and ahead of schedule—not something that would ever happen today!
The video is five hours and 24 minutes of viewing, but of course you don’t have to watch every segment; each one is a complete story. If you subscribe to Netflix, order it. You can always bag it if you don’t like it, but I think you will.