on July 23rd, 2008

Dear colleagues

1.Last week, as I laboured up the myriad of ladders (admittedly secured with a harness), with the family, to the very top of the Sydney Harbour bridge, to that most magnificent view of the city and harbour, I considered some interesting facts:
• Whilst it is not the longest steel-arch bridge in the world, it is the largest and widest (Guinness Book of records).
• It has a span of 503m and a weight of 39,000 tons
• Built by Dorman Long in Newcastle, England and opened in 1932
I then pondered some interesting engineering issues. It is a truly magnificent, engineering marvel and one of the most recognisable symbols of Australia (together with the Sydney Opera House of course). The project managers amongst us would  grin wryly when noting that when completed the cost was more than double the original quote and the final payment for the construction loans was not made until October 1988; some 50 years later!

Some important lessons, however, can be gleaned from the Sydney Harbour Bridge:
• Good engineering stands the test of time and can pass massive economic benefits to future generations. This bridge is going to be around for another 400 years and each day raising considerable revenue.
• Engineers from England built the bridge, but this raw design and construct technology have almost disappeared from the UK. We must carefully hoard and sustain engineering skills to guard against their loss.
• We need to plan financially for the long term with engineering projects - and not expect a quick buck. When the bridge opened only 11,000 vehicles crossed daily. Now 161,000 vehicles use the Bridge each day. Surely these incredible financial and logistical benefits were not taken into account by some beancounter in the 1920s.
• A successful and very profitable climbing business for tourists (such as me) has been built around the bridge. This was only set up some 70 years after the bridge was opened and is now worth a reputed $15m per year. Admittedly, it uses the latest high tech climbing gear and accoutrements, but illustrates that synergies are possible - the most unbelievable opportunities are waiting to be spun off from existing businesses and engineering assets with some lateral thinking and panache.
We need to promote engineering symbols to let everyone know that engineering is not a grubby pursuit but something with vision and nobility. How many engineering symbols do you know that have been so widely used?

2. Some disquiet was expressed by many in my last note as to the real proof for climate change (as an aside - the source I often refer to for inspiration is the Economist). Contentious issues are important as they encourage rigorous study and research, to counter (and perhaps support) the placid acceptance of an emerging and popular view point.

But as far as the Sydney Harbour Bridge and our engineering assets go, I believe what Winston Churchill said to be so true: "We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us"

Yours in engineering learning


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