What can ancient infrastructure teach a modern civil engineer?
Each year, my wife Bonnie and I take a vacation, usually to Europe. Travel is our great shared passion and we both enjoy meeting new people and experiencing life in different cultures. Bonnie is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and enjoys sampling different cuisines, while this civil/military engineer is fascinated with old and ancient infrastructure projects.
Four years ago, on a trip to southern France, I had the opportunity to visit Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct bridge built in the first century AD to carry water over 31 miles to the town of Nimes. Designed and built without modern instruments, the aqueduct has a drop of only 41 feet across its entire length at a constant gradient—amazing! Two years ago, on a trip to Italy, we visited the ruins of Herculaneum near Pompeii. Like Pompeii, Herculaneum was buried during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. It is extremely well preserved and provides a remarkable look at advanced public infrastructure in ancient Rome.
Last year in the Czech Republic, I visited fortifications built in the 1930s to protect the country against Nazi Germany. Although these fortifications were never used for defense—instead they were used for target practice during the German occupation—they still stand 80 years later as a reminder of the determination the small country had to defend itself.
This year we visited Greece and Crete. We saw the Acropolis in Athens and the palace of Knossos in Crete. The Parthenon on the Acropolis, though damaged by wars and earthquakes, is a remarkable architectural achievement. I was particularly impressed with the palace of Knossos, which was built in 1600 BC, had four levels, over 400 rooms, running water and flushing toilets.
That I can still visit and learn from all this old and ancient infrastructure shows that the projects we design today will be judged not only in our time but potentially decades and centuries from now. We must, therefore, design our infrastructure with the long game in mind.
I lead a group focused on dams, flood control, and energy, so I know the challenges project owners face as they try to maintain aging infrastructure with limited funds. As professional engineers, we understand what it takes to build and sustain infrastructure. It is incumbent on us to design for the long term, and press our political representatives at the local, state and federal levels to make the necessary investments to maintain our infrastructure. If we succeed, perhaps we too can be remembered for centuries for what we have built.
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