Friday 4 January 2013

Building Bridges

There's a new bridge being built over a river estuary a few blocks from where I live. It's only half a dozen spans across, and will never feature on Discovery Channel as one of the world's greatest structures. Yet with all our modern machinery it has taken over two years to prepare the site and more than eight months to get five spans in place. Maybe that's fast these days. What I do know is that its construction pace doesn't measure up to many of the great structures from the 19th and early 20th-century, and certainly not to the 1st-century BC. The first bridge to ever cross the River Rhine was built in 55BC by Julius Caesar's Gallic army in just 10 days. Situated near modern Coblenz - where the river is around 400 metres across and is noted for strong currents - the legions harvested a forest of timber, built pile drivers and drove a two lane highway across that mighty river in less than a fortnight. It was an incredible feat. But it was repeated by the Roman Army again and again over the next few centuries. Most of the great infrastructure projects found across the provinces - the paved roads, the aqueducts, even Hadrian's wall - they were all constructed by professional soldiers. Sure, their intentions weren't necessarily altruistic. A paved road meant an army on the march could cross a province in a matter of days, and a regulated water supply meant armies could be quartered without fear of exhausting local wells. But they didn't shirk on quality for the sake of speed - considering some of their bridges in Spain and France are now carrying 18-wheeler semi-trailers - they engineered their structures to last. Now if only they were building the bridge near would last 2000 years and I would have been using it eighteen months ago.

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