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Engineering London: A Century of Progress

Jeffrey Syken

If we could travel back in time to late 1930s London – those years just before the outbreak of the Second World War, it would be very familiar to those of us living in the 21st century, having many of the modern conveniences we take for granted today (i.e. flush toilets, running water etc.). However, if we traveled back to the first half of the 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution was taking root in earnest in Victorian Britain, we would be stepping back to a time when overcrowded streets, chamber pots and a nauseating stench were commonplace on London’s streets; experienced by all regardless of social class. So it was that in the hundred years spanning the 1830s to the 1930s, the modern City of London we know today took shape, becoming one of the great metropolis’ of the world and setting examples for city infrastructure which would be followed by many other cities, both within and without the British Empire, then and now. In fact, it was so admired that part of it now resides in Lake Havasu, AZ (London Bridge, of 1831).

Much of London’s success and reason-for-being stems from the river that runs through it, the Thames. From the days of the Roman occupation, London (“Londinium,” to the Romans) was a port city of importance. Access to London from the North Sea was by way of the Thames Estuary, where lightships provided aid-to-navigation. From the establishment of “Legal Quays” during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the river would become the destination for ships from all corners of the globe. By the year 1800, London was the world’s greatest port, but the great “docklands” that would line the shores of the serpentine Thames were yet to come. The river itself was used to power mills, supply potable water, drain sewers and supply water for boilers and London’s extensive hydraulic power systems (which included the raising and lowering of Tower Bridge’s bascules via “accumulators”). The Victoria and Albert Embankment/s not only made the riverfront beautiful, they served practical purposes as well (i.e. sewer, tube line).

The greatest challenge the river presented was tunneling beneath it, given the nature of “London Clay.” The Brunel’s – father and son, would be the first to “get to the other side” sub-aqueously via the “Thames Tunnel,” though it would not be easy, cheap or timely. Later, the “Tower Subway” would establish the standard for iron-lined “tube” tunnels still in use today. The hybrid (bascule/suspension) “Tower Bridge” solved the problem of allowing ships to enter and exit the “Pool of London” efficiently and remains one of the 19th century’s great engineering achievements. Other engineering feats include London’s extensive sewer and water supply system/s which, by the eve of WWII, was the envy of the world. The first city to be served by railroads and a network of sophisticated stations, by 1863 London could also claim to have the world’s first underground railway, which grew extensively in the intervening years and set standards still followed today. Beckton Gasworks, now defunct, supplied the city with gas through a vast network of mains and the Lots Road and Battersea Power Station/s provided the “power to serve.”

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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