Engineer’s Dreams

Engineer’s Dreams: Great projects that could come true, by Willy Ley (1954).

Here is a book that I found at Half Price Books that has been out of print for decades. Not only is it over fifty years old, it also is quite dated in its relevance. Which is why I found it all the more fascinating.

Willy Ley was a prominent science writer in the 1950s and 60s. Although there was some overlap, whereas Asimov concentrated on science essays, Ley was more engineering oriented. Much of his writing concerned astronautics, which is understandable since he was an associate in the German Rocket Club of the 1920s and early 30s with one Werner von Braun and other German expatriate scientists who were to lead the American space program to the Moon. Unlike the other German rocketeers, however, he headed for the door when Hitler came in, emmigrated to the United States, polished his English, and became a prolific science writer. Wonder about Werner but Willy was okay.

In this book, Ley puts aside his astronautics background and is down to Earth. Literally so, because most of the engineer ‘dreams’ concern moving earth. There’s nothing about rocket engineering, or nuclear engineering, or electronic engineering. It’s almost entirely civil engineering.

Chapter One, “Forbidden Tunnel,” is about building a tunnel under the English Channel. That’s the one ‘dream’ that really hit the Big Time, so let’s compare illustration with reality.

Hmm. Well, I don’t know about you, but it seems that some of the romance and wistfulness has been lost in the translation from dream to reality. The book’s illustrator, Isami Kashiwagi, does a great job in evoking the imagination with the sparse style forced upon him by the limitations of publishing technology in his day.

Anyhow, let’s compare ‘Chunnel’ routes:

It looks like that ‘dream’ hit the mark, albeit with a slight detour in the middle. By the way, the reason why he refers to the tunnel as ‘forbidden’ is because there was once substantial political opposition to its construction on the grounds (excuse semi-pun) that it could serve as a route for the invasion of England from the Continent. I suspect the real reason the Chunnel took so long to build, however, is because, frankly, ferry rides are more fun than riding a train through a tunnel. “Imagine, Jimmy, all the water above us!” “Right, Dad. Can I have my DS?”

I would love to show you many of the other drawings in the book, but it probably would violate some kind of fair-use copyright which serves no purpose since Ley died more than forty years ago, ironically only a few days before he could witness the Apollo Moon landing that he had anticipated for decades. But at least let me recount the contents.

Chapter Two, “Islands Afloat,” is about building a floating island out of an iceberg, or maybe a mixture of sawdust and ice. This was actually conceived in World War II as a mid-Atlantic landing field for anti-submarine patrol aircraft. Churchill himself was a strong supporter of the plan, but then the Germans lost the submarine war, and so no floating islands to this day, although there are plans afoot to build island communities out of old oil rigs.

Chapter Three, “The Tamed Volcano” is about geothermal energy and goes into detail about tapping volcanic heat in Iceland and Italy. According to wikipedia, the Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Station was built in 1987 and today delivers 120 megawatts of geothermal power. That’s fine for Iceland’s tiny population, but it’s kind of small for the output of a civil nuclear power plant.

Chapter Four, “The Valley of the Jordan,” and Chapter Five, “Africa’s Central Lake,” are all about flooding large land areas to provide hydroelectric power, transportation, and improved agriculture. And all we have to do is relocate a few million people!

Surprisingly there is no mention of doing this sort of thing in Egypt in what would later become the Aswan Dam Project.

But after you digest the thought of flooding the Middle East and Africa, the author presents us with a plan in Chapter Six, “Atlantropa — the Changed Mediterranean,” to expand Europe by damming and then lowering the Mediterranean Sea by several hundred feet. Italy doubles in size, as does the Peloponnese whose picturesque coastlines are so far inland you can longer see the beach even from the top of that cliff with that cool village with the white walls and blue domes, and even the Adriatic and Aegean Seas shrivel to become modest bays.

“How come these engineering projects reduce the Third World in size but expand Europe?” I think many of us would ask that question today, but I wonder if anyone in the American/British target audience gave it much thought back when the book was published.

The final three chapters of the book would seem quite politically modern, however, in that they discuss renewable energy.

Chapter Seven, “Power from the Sun,” is about solar energy. Photovoltaics is passsed over to discuss solar mirrors focusing on solar boilers to generate steam. I found this the most interesting chapter in the book, since hard data on power output from such systems has been hard to track down, even though such projects have become common.

Chapter Eight, “Waves and Warm Water,” is about tidal energy, the whole Bay of Fundy bit. I’m surprised Ley didn’t call it ‘Power from the Moon,’ given his background.

Chapter Nine, “Harnessing the Winds,” is about building big wind turbines, although the designs look nothing like the ones plaguing the English countryside today. One illustration, called the ‘Honnef Tower,’ looks like the Germans were planning to duplicate the Eiffel Tower by a factor of two and then top it off with a triangle of giant blades that are horizontal in orientation, like helicopters. I Googled, and via the Wayback machine and came up with this image:


One can only imagine the course of World War II had the Germans during the occupation of Paris decided to transform the real Eiffel Tower into such a monstrosity. They still would have lost, but one can imagine Patton coming over the horizon and seeing that thing. “Lieutenant, get me General Eisenhower — and some scotch!”

Well, we did build the Chunnel, but wisely engineers have decided to fulfill other dreams over the past few decades than those described in Engineer’s Dreams. Wisely, that is, assuming that the Robot Armageddon doesn’t come to pass. Otherwise, we may well wish we had stuck with vacuum tubes and poured all that high-tech venture capital into a project to drain the Med. You can never have enough Peloponnese, I always say.


About engineerzero

Once and future engineer.
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