The Leviathan #10favstructures #buildingpassions

Many years ago when I was a child, I remember watching a TV programme about the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

The programme covered his early life and construction of tunnels, bridges and railways. But the achievement that most appealed to me was his realised ambition to build the largest steamships in the world.

The first such ship was the Great Western, followed soon by the Great Britain, both designed and built in Bristol. However, it was Brunel’s final project, the SS Great Eastern that most stood out for me. Here was a truly gargantuan vessel which would eclipse others for many decades to come.

The monster ship was launched with much difficulty on the River Thames in London. Brunel also fell out with investors and his notoriously difficult collaborator John Scott Russell. Finally, there was an engine room explosion on the maiden run.

IKB never lived to see what happened to his ‘Leviathan’. His civil engineer son Henry kept an interest in the ship and replaced his father as a close personal mentor with the famous naval architect Sir William Froude. The ship’s greatest role was to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable.

The Great Eastern therefore features on my list of favourite structures in my book ‘Building Passions‘ as the only ship. It raised all kinds of technical issues as a vast iron structure designed for many people. Up-ended it would have represented a skyscraper far ahead of its time!

Tis a season of cheer and perhaps Reform? #buildingpassions

It’s Christmas Day and a good time to wish happiness to the world, with a bit of reform sprinkled in.

Continuing my 10 favourite structures from my book ‘Building Passions‘, I had a moment of doubt on which should feature in this post. However, that soon disappeared and I decided on the building in the picture.

It is of the Reform Club on Pall Mall in London. You may know the street if you have ever played the British version of Monopoly, or visited London. Perhaps you have walked past the building.

The Reform Club was designed and built by Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament, also featured on my list. His clientele were the same, elite members of Victorian society, many of whom were keen to change the world around them for the better.

Barry’s inspiration was an Italian Palazzo he had seen as a young man on his self-funded tour of the great Western classics of architecture. He wanted to recreate its exterior in foggy London, but it is with the interior that he fully expressed his creative talents.

Reform is topical currently in the world, as young people become frustrated with slow progress on the environment and the political idealism they espouse.

We can only hope that 2020 brings a change for the better.

A loch, some falls and a bridge #buildingpassions #10favstructures

Loch Etive is a Scottish sea inlet or fjord north of Oban in the Highlands.

Back in the 19th Century it was decided to extend the railway from Oban northwards and the big issue was whether to go round Loch Etive or across it. Unlike other lochs it had a shallow part at a place called ‘The Falls of Lora’. The name was apt as when the tide comes out of the loch it produces a standing torrent of water.

The engineers (John Wolfe Barry and partners) knew it would be too difficult to place any part of a bridge directly in that part of the loch, so needed to come up with a different, not too expensive solution for the trains to cross. They decided on a single span cantilever action bridge made from steel.

What is a cantilever bridge? The most famous example then and still with us is the Forth Rail Bridge, also in Scotland, for which the huge amounts of steel were supplied, like at Loch Etive and Tower Bridge, by William Arrol and Company of Glasgow.

The Forth Rail Bridge in Scotland (Wikimedia Commons)

The Forth Rail Bridge was over-specified due to the high winds in the wide sea estuary where it was located – by contrast the bridge over Loch Etive would shorter and could be based on a simpler design, but using the same cantilever principle. The rising bascule leaves on Tower Bridge also acted as movable cantilevers, extending out from the tower bases to meet in the middle of the River Thames.

When the Connel Ferry Bridge was completed in 1903, it became the world’s longest single span cantilever bridge (the Forth Rail Bridge had double spans!). It was soon taken over by other bridges, but I feel it set a precedent and it is still with us now for road traffic only.

This is the first post in a series of 10 favourite structures featured in the book ‘Building Passions’ by Nick von Behr. The 11th post will try to rank the structures in order of appeal.

The place where they do the annual Xmas lectures #buildingpassions

When I used to work at the UK Academy of Sciences, we often got calls asking us about our Christmas Lecture, particularly as the Autumn days began to darken.

We would politely reply: “I’m sorry, you want the Royal Institution. We are the Royal Society.”

In some cases this led to a follow on conversation about the difference between the two organisation’s titles. We would explain that the Royal Society was one of the world’s oldest science academies founded in 1660, whereas the Royal Institution had been set up in the 19th Century by science communicators with the purpose of educating the public about science. Michael Faraday’s famous lectures on electricity morphed into the annual Xmas events broadcast on the BBC.

I am giving a Christmas lecture in Canterbury on 17 December with the same title as my book ‘Building Passions’. It may not be on the same level as the RI ones, but it is about communicating on the STEM subjects, as we now group them. Mine will focus on engineering and architecture as part of our built environment’s history.

I will talk about the Brunel and Barry families of engineers and architects. Sir John Wolfe Barry and Henry Brunel, sons of famous fathers, worked together on building Tower Bridge in London. I will cover other well-known and interesting structures and there will be a live demonstration of simple bridge building.

Do please come along! Whether you manage or not you can still buy the book and/or donate to my favourite charity campaign Time to Change.

How to find your audience and win it over #buildingpassions

Communicating is all about tailoring your key messages to the right audience.

When I started in education policy back in mid 2002, we soon realised how important this was. Within a few months we were meeting as a group of education experts and policy staff with the new Secretary of State for Education. He was a busy man, but already impressed with our first report on continuing professional development for maths teachers. We just needed to get home the key points rapidly and convincingly.

We all learned from that meeting and went on to produce other reports and have other meetings with Ministers. At the other end of the hierarchy are the students in our state schools in England, for whom politicians are tasked to provide oversight.

I spoke to groups of them this week at a school in the town where I live. They were teenagers, so inevitably there was bravado and shyness depending on their perceived status in the school. My constant message to them all was be passionate about at least one area of their life.

I realise now, having sat through some fascinating sessions at a Kent education conference today, that communicating with students involves engaging with school staff and parents/carers simultaneously.

Above all, this is a long term process which won’t necessarily produce immediate results.

Like writing and publishing a book.