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Discovering nuggets of America's civil engineering history

Landmarks in American Civil Engineering, by Daniel L. Schodek. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 380 pp, $50. Unlike European engineering accomplishments, American structural achievements expressed their presence and practicality rather quietly.

Early bridges, dams, tunnels, railroads, and highways in the United States were not built as a backdrop to empire, or as a grand gesture to proclaim to the world the might and marvels of a world power. Rather, they were often domesticated affairs, meeting the needs and concerns of a neighborhood or state from an almost purely economic standpoint.

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This is not to say that Europeans did not build for economic reasons, but Americans often went about building their structures with a quiet, dignified innocence. This low-key approach to some pretty astounding executions of engineering excellence makes it difficult to compare them with equivalent European accomplishments.

Another difficulty is that these structures were often in what was considered the ``middle of nowhere'' at the time. Americans were farther spread out, and land was abundantly available and cheap. Europeans lived in compact cities, and even the rural population was not too far from a seat of government or municipal control. A unique bridge or aqueduct in Europe might more likely be a part of an ancient city, on a major trade route, or in some other recognized location. In the New World, the word ``freedom'' meant doing what was necessary with little interference from established mores and methods.

Americans found a river and threw a bridge across it, or found a mountain range blocking their path and tunneled through it. Works were built to supply them with fresh water, and highways were built that would have been presentable for a city - all very often in the middle of what today would be considered a wilderness.

S-shaped bridges were built across streams and rivers when these were encountered at an angle to the roadway. Bending the bridge enabled the early settlers to minimize spans and construction difficulties.

When William Penn wanted to visit New York, he found it was decent travel until he reached the Pennypack Creek near Philadelphia. He urged local authorities to construct a bridge, and the bridge, built in 1697 and widened to accommodate a trolley line in 1893, today carries modern vehicular traffic.

This book could well be called ``Landmarks in American History.'' These isolated nuggets of historic gold need to be recognized as part of the larger, broader backdrop of civil, social, and political life in the United States. Structures and environments still useful to society stand as ``living'' history.

The Charles River Basin project and the first subway in the United States in Boston; the remaining sections of the National Road - built between 1811 and 1839 - and pump houses for Philadelphia's water supply built in 1775; the last survivors of the once-common covered bridge; and even the Newark International Airport, which sponsored many navigational and lighting system breakthroughs in an infant air industry, have a place in engineering annals.

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Spanish engineers built the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1695 - almost 400 years ago - making it clear that American history was established well before 1776.

Author Daniel Schodek, who has a PhD in civil engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a professor of architectural technology at Harvard University, does not see architecture as a separate statement of man's ingenuity, but as an integral part of human expression and social statement.

His book is easy to read and not too technical. Although some pictures seem poorly reproduced, this may be because the original photographs were in poor shape. More full-page photographs would have been helpful. The size and scope of many of the structures called for larger pictures.

Most landmarks mentioned in the book have been earmarked as ``National Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks.'' They are artifacts representing community aspirations or needs in a growing country, and although often built with European help and to their standards, were and are wholly American in placement, implementation, and usefulness.

Roy Barnacle is on the Monitor's staff.

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