Book review: Engineers' Dreams, by Willy Ley

5 minute read

I’ve sort of made it a habit to report on interesting books, even if they’re not new or in print.

This weekend I sat down with a well-preserved copy of Engineers’ Dreams, which as far as I can tell hasn’t been out of the library since 1974. The book was written by Willy Ley and published in 1954. Ley was an early expert in rocketry who emigrated from Germany to the United States in the mid-1930’s and later contributed to rocket research and popularizing space travel. He wrote very widely in science – when I was a kid, I read a copy of his Exotic Zoology, one of the first popularizations of mythical or pseudoscientific creatures like the unicorn and Yeti.

Engineers’ Dreams is one of those books that could only have been written in the 1950’s. It radiates a tremendous optimism and confidence in science, and it is clearly written and easy to read. No convoluted footnotes, and all qualifications or objections are right out front for the reader to examine. Ley had a talent for describing things that I would normally think of in pictures – an important skill for describing engineering projects that span hundreds of miles.

Ley provides a straightforward description of the origins, history, and prospects for many large-scale engineering prospects. The lead-off chapter covers the Channel Tunnel. The project had a long incubuation and excavation had actually begun in 1880 – the project figures in the fictional world of “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, for example. But it was stopped and held indefinitely for political and military reasons.

Indeed, that is the common strain of many of Ley’s descriptions. He describes the “Jordan Valley Authority”, a scheme to irrigate the valley of the Jordan while replacing its flow into the Dead Sea with seawater, generating immense electrical power from the quarter-mile drop. Prospects for the project were dim in 1954, despite any engineering advantages, due to the political instability of the region. Likewise, flooding of the Congo Basin by a tremendous dam, and provision of water to the central Sahara – a prewar German scheme – was unlikely to go forward because of the intransigence of the Belgians at losing territory, a problem Ley admitted might not be insuperable if a political union of the nations of Europe were to emerge (!).

I think that gives the general idea. I don’t need to belabor all the ways such a book would be different today. Needless to say, as I was reading about the evaporation of the Red Sea, the provision of locks for shipping after damming of the Strait of Gibraltar, and the possible redirection of the Gulf Stream, my own thoughts tended toward the ecological consequences of such big biogeographic changes. Today, we notice the incursion of Red Sea organisms through the Suez Canal, and the increasing rarity of old-growth forest along the rivers of the tropics. Those kinds of concerns were not even trivia in the 1950’s; they were simply unknown.

But even in human terms, this kind of passage just wouldn’t go over so well these days:

As for the Congo Basin itself, we don't know whether anything of value would be drowned or not. As far as the map tells the story, everything of known value, and this includes even National Parks and spots of great scenic beauty, would be outside the limits of the drowned area. That the drowned area is an especially unhealthy place is generally conceded, but it is the home of a large number of Africans, somewhere around two million, who would have to be moved. Since the property of these tribes is portable property, since all this change would come about slowly, and most important, since the move would better their lot, they probably would not object (Ley 1954:134-135).

Today’s political objections are simply not the same as those that concerned the colonial powers of the immediate postwar period. However, one may point out that projects nearly as great in scale continue to be carried out despite (and in some cases directly due to) politics. The Channel Tunnel was, in the end, built – a project that benefited greatly from the political unification of Europe. Two large dams were built on the lower Congo River – at a smaller scale and different location than Ley’s description – and a much larger one is proposed to add an additional third to Africa’s electrical generation capacity. The Three Gorges Dam, not described by Ley, required the relocation of more than 1.2 million people, with an additional 4 million slated to move from the area in by 2020.

Today, people tend to think of large engineering projects as encouraging division. But once, they were seen as ways of unifying people – the great bridges and dams of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries being prime examples. Even grander projects, like the damming of the Mediterranean, might be viewed only as the ideas of cranks. But in each there is a potential nexus for cooperation on a massive scale.

No area is more important than energy, a point already totally clear in 1954:

Power from the Sun
Many of the projects discussed in the preceding chapters have one thing in common, no matter how different they may be in details otherwise. There was always a point where the engineer said, "And here we can put a power dam," or, "The power plant will then be located at ..." It might seem as if all the engineering projects of the future that do not deal with transportation are concerned with energy and power.
It not only seems that way; it is so.
The preoccupation of engineers with sources of power -- "fuel" in any form of disguise -- goes back to something that took place in 1913 and which, at first glance seemed to have little to do with any kind of engineering.

Ley goes on to describe this event: a conference report on what today we would call “peak coal” – an estimate of the amount of coal still remaining to be mined and the length of time it would last at current rates of consumption. The details have changed in the meantime, but the observation is the same: Renewable sources of energy are necessary for the long-term survival of industrial society. Ley describes several – solar and wind power, tidal and geothermal. Some have shown notable successes in the last 50 years, others less so.

No doubt there are better histories of such grandiose projects now available. Particularly since a few of them – practical wind power, the Channel Tunnel – have been carried out in the meantime. But for sheer audacity of purpose and simplicity of description, none are likely to surpass Ley’s account.