Engineering wonders tend to have titles preceded by “largest,” “fastest” or “greatest.” What separates a true feat of engineering from a wonder of the world, however, is its utility. At the Cockrell School of Engineering, our vision is to be a catalyst for solutions that advance society, drive economic progress and improve the quality of life around the world. It’s by this standard that we compiled a list of the seven engineering wonders of the world.
1. Aqueduct of Segovia
In the historic city of Segovia, Spain, there stands a monument to Roman engineering. Cutting across rolling Spanish hills, the Aqueduct of Segovia once conveyed water 10 miles from the Frío River to the city, where a change in elevation at the Plaza de Diaz Sanz necessitated the construction of a bridge. Two tiers of arches span the plaza, making it easy to see why the aqueduct is known as El Puente, Spanish for “the bridge.”
Constructed under Emperor Trajan around the first century, the aqueduct remains one the most well-preserved Roman aqueducts in Europe. What’s truly remarkable, however, are the construction materials — or lack thereof. There’s no mortar. Thanks to the remarkable talent of the aqueduct’s engineers, gravity alone has held the 24,000 granite blocks in place for close to two millennia.
2. The MOSE Project
The high tide forecasted for Venice, Italy, on October 3, 2020, would have left the historic city partially submerged underwater. However, against the backdrop of ringing flood sirens, 78 barriers rose from the seabed to form a dam capable of holding back the rising water for the first time in history. This defense system is called MOSE, Italian for Moses, and it’s Venice’s answer to climate change and acqua alta (the periodic high tides of the Adriatic Sea).
MOSE’s underwater barriers, each weighing ten tons and measuring 66 feet in length, are attached by hinges to massive cement blocks on the seafloor. Together, they create four sea walls at the three openings to the Venetian lagoon. It remains to be seen if rising sea levels will once again demand the best of the city’s engineers, but for now, the cobbled streets and picturesque cafes of Venice remain above water.
3. Itaipú Dam
The Itaipú Dam is one of the largest generators of renewable energy in the world. Located at the Brazil-Paraguay border, this hydroelectric dam meets 15% of Brazil’s and 86% of Paraguay’s energy needs. 20 turbine generators at the base convert energy from the flowing water of the Paraná River into 14 gigawatts of electricity. That’s equivalent to the energy produced by 43.75 million solar panels. A hollow gravity dam, the Itaipú Dam withstands immense pressure by virtue of its weight alone and is yet another engineering wonder that seems to accomplish the impossible.
4. Panama Canal
We go from South to Central America, where the Panama Canal cuts through the Isthmus of Panama to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The construction of the canal was a massive undertaking, at times employing over 40,000 workers who labored while fending off yellow fever and malaria.
The lock-type canal also necessitated the taming of the Chagres River. This was accomplished with an earthen dam, creating the largest man-made lake at the time, Gatún Lake. Raising ships to the heights of the Gatún, Alajuela and Miraflores lakes before lowering them to sea level, the Panama Canal has allowed ships to circumvent the long voyage around South America for over a century.
5. Channel Tunnel
For over 200 years, engineers dreamed of a subterranean link between Britain and France. Their dreams were realized in 1991 when French and English workers finally met, shaking hands and exchanging national flags in the last section of the Channel Tunnel. Six years of effort by 13,000 workers culminated in the tunnel’s opening in 1994. Today, English travelers can hop on a train and disembark in France in 35 minutes. In the wake of Brexit, the Channel Tunnel continues to connect these two great nations.
6. Large Hadron Collider
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the largest and most powerful particle accelerator on the planet. All of the essential information about the LHC can be found in its name: It’s “large,” with a 27-kilometer circumference. The subatomic particles it accelerates are a type of “hadron.” And as for “collider” …
Two particle beams travel in opposite directions close to the speed of light. The LHC is the last link in a chain propelling these beams to their highest energies. Superconducting electromagnets maintain a magnetic field that guides the particles as they travel along the accelerator ring. According to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, a collision is “akin to firing two needles 10 [kilometers] apart with such precision that they meet halfway.” By colliding particles at high energies, scientists have been able to test predictions in particle physics, resulting in the 2012 confirmation of the Higgs boson, or “God particle.”
7. James Webb Space Telescope Observatory
The James Webb Space Telescope will be an engineering wonder of the world until the moment it’s launched into space, so we’ve allowed it to sneak in here. According to NASA, the Webb Telescope will be the “premier observatory of the next decade,” capable of looking back over 13.5 billion years to witness the afterglow of the Big Bang, the birth of planetary systems and — fingers crossed — the building blocks of life on another planet.
It’s difficult to focus on a single engineering feat incorporated into the design of the Webb Telescope. The primary mirror is constructed of ultra-lightweight beryllium, a five-layer sunshield can reduce heat from the sun a millionfold and an onboard cryocooler can cool instruments to minus 447 degrees Fahrenheit. Mark your calendars for its target launch date: October 31, 2021!
Interested in making your own mark on the field of engineering? The University of Texas at Austin offers two 100% online engineering programs: the Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering and the Mechanical Engineering Controls Graduate Certificate. Apply now to one of our 100% online programs to gain the confidence and skills you’ll need to overcome career and engineering challenges.