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by James Burke

Folies de Grandeur

Sitting here by the Thames at my word-processing machine, I look out on a beautiful Isambard Kingdom Brunel railway bridge, so I'm constantly reminded of the way 19th-century iron and steel technology produced so many machine-assisted folies de grandeur. And as I dredge my mental silt for a start to this column, one comes floating past. A dredger, that is.

Which brings to mind the Suez Canal, folie de grandeur of them all. Everybody, from the Romans on, had a go at linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Even Napoleon, after he invaded Egypt in 1798, tried (and gave up when his commission of scientists told him the 30-inch difference in water level between the seas made it inadvisable). But in 1869, 25,000 fellahin backed by a consortium of Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Holland and Denmark succeeded. In the last stages of construction, suction dredgers were employed.

Both the canal and the pneumatic sand removal had been French ideas. The canal itself was masterminded by a think-big entrepreneur named Ferdinand-Marie de Lesseps (who went on to bankruptcy over a similar job, in the Isthmus of Panama). Industrial-scale pneumatics were introduced while the French were digging the first railway tunnel through the Alps under Mont Cenis. This project was intended to unite Italian Savoy (north of the mountains) through Switzerland with the rest of Italy to the south. Also, people coming home from India and the East could then pick up a train somewhere like Brindisi, instead of having to sail all the way around Spain. But before the tunnel was complete, there was a war, and the French got Savoy. Still, it would be good for tourism.

In 1861, after three years of tedious hand-boring into the Alpine rock face (advancing all of eight inches a day), the chief engineer, Germain Sommeiller, decided to try to finish the job in less than his lifetime. To get through faster, he built a special reservoir, high above the tunnel entrance, to produce a head of water that compressed air for pneumatic drills, which sped things up 20 times.

The Mont Cenis Tunnel amazed everybody almost as much as the Suez Canal did, and the new wonder drills were showcased in a magazine perused by an American whiz kid, George Westinghouse. In 1869 he turned the pneumatic concept into an air brake for use on trains. Compressed air, in pipes running under the train, held back pistons. In the event of a release of air pressure, the pistons slammed forward, driving brake shoes against wheels. Thus a 103-foot train going 30 miles per hour could be stopped in 500 feet.

Such a feat encouraged the idea of scheduling more trains, more closely spaced than had previously been wise, which in turn required better signaling. Which is why, in 1888, Westinghouse fell in with an inventive Croat who wore a new red-and-black tie every week and lived in a hotel room full of pigeons. Name of Nicola Tesla, he figured out how to send electrical power long distances over train tracks to operate railway signals. And then he invented a device so fundamental to the modern world that most of the time you don't know it's there. Tesla sent alternating current into two sets of coils wound on iron, setting up currents that were 90 degrees out of phase with each other. These generated a magnetic field that rotated with each successive burst of current, causing a copper disk to spin. When you put a belt on the disk, you had an electric motor. By World War I, this trick was just what the captains of the newest monster-size battleships were desperate for.

Desperate, first of all, because metal ships with onboard electrical power made things difficult for a magnetic compass, so you could easily get lost. And second of all, the giant 14-inch guns, capable of firing 850-pound shells nearly 10 miles, were unlikely to do any harm if the ship were rolling so much you couldn't hit an enemy barn door.

Tesla's little motor helped to solve both these problems because it could spin gyroscopes of different sizes. There were tiny gyros, for true-north pointing (once you spin the gyro, it stays pointing the way you set it spinning, come hell or, more appositely, high water). Then there were humongous, 4,000-ton gyros, spinning in the center of a ship and compensating for the swell of the sea. And, finally, midsize gyros, doing the same favor for all the gun platforms. Now dreadnoughts could live up to their name. In her first wartime encounter, the newly gyrostabilized USS Delaware shot every attacking plane out of the sky. During a storm.

This use of the gyroscope was the brainchild of Elmer A. Sperry, a Brooklyn electrical component manufacturer, and it made his fortune. Mind you, persuading the navy to buy wasn't all plain sailing. And the financial risks were real high-wire stuff. Which, as it happened, was where Sperry had originally (and only once) failed. Early on, he'd tried to talk P. T. Barnum into featuring a gyrostabilized wheelbarrow in one of his circus trapeze acts.

The likely reason for Barnum's refusal was that he didn't have much truck with technology, except briefly in the 1840s, when he first set out to be a showman and went looking for curiosities to exhibit. His wish list included "industrious fleas ... fat boys ... rope dancers and ... knitting machines." Besides, by the time Sperry was pitching the gyro idea to him, Barnum was well beyond wheelbarrows (or fleas), touring "The Greatest Show on Earth" with 800 people, 10,000 miles a year by special train.

From time to time Barnum would give it all up for temperance work, or, from 1851 to 1852, to manage a U.S.-Cuba tour for the greatest soprano in the world, Jenny Lind. In 1844 Lind had given her first performance outside Sweden (in Berlin) and was so extravagantly successful that she became an instant diva at 24. One fan wanted only to touch her shoulder "to see where the wings began"(she was known as the "Swedish Nightingale"). In the street she caused scenes that wouldn't be witnessed again until the Beatles. In 1845 Her Majesty's Theater in London commissioned an opera for Lind and asked the other operatic superstar of the day, Giuseppe Verdi, to write it. Two years later Verdi obliged with I masnadieri, starring Lind in the role of Amalia. Boffo.

This might be why Verdi got the chance, in the late 1860s, to write what became the most popular opera ever: Aida. Running Egypt at the time was a khedive called Ismail Pasha, whose local engineering efforts had cost so much he was severely short of funds and had to sell his shares in a potentially major moneymaker (the project for which Aida was originally commissioned). The opera, being set in Pharaonic Egypt, was supposed to glorify the country's ancient past and cock a snook at Ismail's Turkish overlords. It didn't do much in that direction, however, and perhaps because it took so long to strike a deal Verdi would accept, delivery of the score was two years overdue. Too late for the occasion it was supposed to celebrate: the opening of the Suez Canal.

And that's my machine-assisted folie de grandeur for this month.