Stories of the craziest projects of all time

Stories of the craziest projects of all time

2 May 2018
engineering history innovation
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Twenty thousand leagues under the sea

For centuries, the idea of a vessel that could navigate underwater fed people’s imagination and scores of engineers have worked on submarine travel throughout the ages – for scientific exploration, military action or other uses. The first models devised were primitive and looked like upside-down boats. And then for a long time, submarines were modelled on the design of the diving bell, with the person under water breathing air contained in an airtight bell and either being pulled along by a boat or walking along the sea bed.
While Leonardo da Vinci is extremely well known for his paintings, anatomic research and flying machines, many are unaware of his interest in submarine travel. And yet at the dawn of the sixteenth century, this universal genius designed a war machine capable of moving underwater so that it could surprise enemies and attack them without being seen.

The idea of a submersible craft – which some thought was impossible to make – had been abandoned for a while before it was taken up again in 1472 by the Venetian, Roberto Valturio, and then in 1518 by the British mathematician, William Bourne. The first submarine was finally launched underwater in 1624, when the Dutch engineer, Cornelis Drebbel, under the patronage of King James I of England, devised and successfully tested a semi-submersible craft that used the same concept as a diving bell.
Throughout his life as an inventor, Leonardo da Vinci’s visionary ideas would be met with scepticism by his contemporaries. And yet so many of his ideas would come into being years later as a result of technical advances and the invention of lighter, more resistant materials. As well as the submarine it was da Vinci who came up with the original designs of the automobile, cam hammer, diving suit, hydraulic pump, steam cannon, military tank, calculator, helicopter and parachute, to name but a few.

To fly like a bird…

As well as exploring the depths of the ocean, people have always dreamt of being able to fly through the air like a bird as Icarus did (although with a less dramatic end of course). The first experiments carried out by the Montgolfier brothers enabled people to go up in the air at the end of the eighteenth century. The principle was simple (a balloon filled with hot air which lifts up a basket underneath) but limited (as the trajectory of this flying engine depended entirely on the strength of the wind).
It was not until Orville and Wilbur Wright that the first controlled flight of a powered “heavier-than-air” flying machine took place. These American brothers are widely credited as being the pioneers of aviation, but in December 1903, their claims of making the first flight aboard an aircraft equipped with 12 horsepower engine were derided and dismissed as a hoax by the highbrow Scientific American magazine.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, inventors across the world were attempting to conquer the air. The Wright brothers were able to join this race thanks to the money they earned through the Wright Cycle Company – a small workshop specialised in repairing and renting bicycles. Their first move was to design a small glider in order to test the impact of the wind on the aircraft’s wings. Then, once they managed to stabilise the glider (notably by adding a vertical tail and a rudder) the brothers began to build a small 12 horsepower engine without a carburettor and capable of powering two propellers. After numerous unsuccessful tests and reworkings this engine finally managed to get the brothers’ plane off the ground, with Orville Wright flying 284 metres in 59 seconds. Against a backdrop of general indifference, the Wright brothers carried out another series of flight tests between 1904 and 1905, managing to fly a bit further and a bit longer each time. They finally gained recognition in Europe where the “Great Race for Flight” was all the rage, along with Alberto Santos-Dumont, Henri Farman, Gabriel and Charles Voisin and a little later on, Louis Blériot.

A Tower of Babel

That was the nickname given to the monumental project originally dreamed up by Émile Nouguier and Maurice Koechlin, two engineers employed by the Eiffel company. As a successful entrepreneur (having built the Maria-Pia viaduct in Portugal and designed the internal structure for the Statue of Liberty in New York), Gustave Eiffel took over the project, purchased the patent filed by his employees and tried to find a buyer. First of all he offered “his” tower to the mayor of Barcelona, which was hosting the 1888 World’s Fair, but the mayor thought the project was “unrealistic and above all, much too expensive”.
But that’s beside the point! On the occasion of the centennial celebrations of the French revolution, it was France’s turn to hold the World’s Fair in 1889. The city of Paris organised a contest to build a 300-metre-high metal tower in the centre of Paris, on the Champ de Mars, and a hundred or so projects were presented at Paris Town Hall. After all the other entries had been rejected as being unfeasible or insufficiently researched, “Mr Eiffel’s Tower” was deemed a “masterpiece of the metal industry” and was the clear winner. And so construction could commence.
From the very start of the works, this now world-famous emblem of Paris was met with scepticism and criticism by Eiffel’s contemporaries. Some thought it was structurally faulty and others said it was an “ugly blemish in the middle of Paris”. Art critic Karl Huysmans went as far as saying it looked like “a pipe of a factory under construction, a shell of a building waiting to be filled with stones or bricks”. Many influential members of the artistic and literary community of the time spoke out against the project and a group including Charles Gounod, Victorien Sardou, Alexandre Dumas fils, François Coppée, Sully Prudhomme, Leconte de Lisle and Guy de Maupassant signed an “Artists’ Protest against Mr. Eiffel’s Tower”. However, many of them later regretted giving their support to this protest. Inaugurated on 31 March 1889, the Eiffel Tower met with resounding success, welcoming some 2 million visitors in the space of 6 months.
As the Tower was supposed to be demolished after 20 years, Gustave Eiffel worked hard to demonstrate its practical use. He set up a weather observatory at the top, and then several years later, a wireless transmission antenna. However, it was ultimately the advent of aviation and the strategic advantages offered by the Tower’s telecommunication equipment for the French armed forces that saved it definitively from the threat of being dismantled.

Conquering space

A genius serial-entrepreneur, exceptional visionary and today ranked 21st in the list of America’s wealthiest people, Elon Musk nearly lost everything by staking his personal fortune on saving Tesla Motors and making it the automaker of the future.
This South Africa-born entrepreneur has a highly diverse and seemingly unlimited range of interests; he is a co-founder of Zip2, one of the main directors of X.com (which became Paypal after its merger with Confinity), Chairman & CEO of SpaceX and Tesla and the founder of The Boring Company (a tunnel construction firm) and the OpenAI non-profit research company (whose aim is to promote and develop open-source artificial intelligence for the benefit of everyone). Elon Musk is passionate about space travel and one of his most daring ideas is to promote private spaceflight by reducing costs and improving the reliability of access to space. When SpaceX was just in its infancy, he announced that it would be sending an unmanned rocket to Mars in 2018 and then a manned flight by 2024. His highly-ambitious objective is to embark on a project to colonise the red planet and to send some 80,000 people to live there by 2040.
The US-based SpaceX’s initial failures seemed to prove Musk’s critics right, but in 2015 it managed to land the top portion of its Falcon 9 rocket on terra firma in Florida, marking the first step towards “affordable” space flight. And in the first quarter of 2018, on the 50th launch of the Falcon 9 rocket, it sent into orbit a telecommunications satellite belonging to the Spanish company, Hispasat. And as for the planet Mars, well, bets are open…

One for all or all for all?
The concept of banking is by no means a recent invention. In 2000 BC, in Mesopotamia, a number of shopkeepers received deposits and granted loans (similar to pawn shops today). And then with the introduction of minted coins, the activity of money changer began to develop in line with the take-off of international trade. Banks as we know them today began to appear in the 15th century, thanks to two innovations introduced by Lombardy bankers: sight deposits and letters of credit. These first banks were owned by families (the Medicis in Italy and the Fuggers in Germany) and played a key role in the rise of Western capitalism. From then on, the banking sector continued to evolve and take shape, without ever managing to create a fully secure system.
In the 1980s, Dr. David Chaum’s publication Security without Identification: Transaction Systems to Make Big Brother Obsolete set out the basic principles of cryptocurrency, which, as opposed to the central control of traditional banking systems, uses a system of decentralised validation that is owned by its users. Many unsuccessful attempts to create virtual money would follow, the most notable ones being Wei Dai’s “b-money” in 1998 and Nick Szabo’s “bit-gold” in 2005. It was not until the invention of the Bitcoin that the use of cryptocurrency became widespread. In 2008, under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, a developer (or group of developers – we still don’t know) published an article called Bitcoin A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System. This article sets out the methods for using a peer-to-peer network in order to generate a system of secure electronic transactions. Each bitcoin (called a “block”) created, sold or exchanged is checked for double spending by a P-2-P network (in exchange for remuneration) in order to secure and register the transaction in a virtual cash register: the “blockchain”. Each block contains a pointer to the previous block, as well as a certified date and information about the transaction. Blockchains cannot be retroactively modified without altering all of the related blocks, which would require the agreement of the majority of the network.
The blockchain is THE innovation introduced by the bitcoin, which has been reused for many cryptocurrencies since. But it doesn’t just apply to financial transactions – industrialists in a wide range of fields are now interested in this data transmission technology, whose potential could completely transform how they do business. The energy sector is without doubt the most advanced in this respect. In New York, the TransActive Grid cooperative has developed a system of exchanging solar power between the residents of a street using the Ethereum blockchain. Blockchains could also be used in the healthcare sector to certify the authenticity of drugs, or in the transport sector to enable smart cars to take an alternative route to avoid traffic. Some specialists are even calling it the fourth industrial revolution. And yet so far, cryptocurrencies are only used by one in a thousand of the world’s population. So should bitcoin be seen as a visionary innovation or a passing fad?

In both the arts and sciences, real innovators who upset the status quo are rarely recognised or rewarded in their lifetimes. Instead, it is history that will prove them right – or not. But if pursuing recognition and reward was the only leitmotif for these visionary geniuses the scope of their potential would be severely restricted.

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