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Understanding the World's Greatest Structures: Science and Innovation from Antiquity to Modernity

Understanding the World's Greatest Structures: Science and Innovation from Antiquity to Modernity

Professor Stephen Ressler Ph.D.
United States Military Academy, West Point
Course No.  1153
Course No.  1153
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  31 minutes per lecture

Your world is filled with structures that have stood the test of time. That give character to the cities and landscapes in which they’re located. That are visited by millions of people each year. And that capture our wonder for the marvels of engineering innovation and progress. But while structures such as the Giza pyramids, Brunelleschi’s dome, and the Brooklyn Bridge are visual spectacles in and of themselves, they are just as important for the way they were designed as for the way they look.

Now, experience the engineering genius that makes these works possible with Understanding the World’s Greatest Structures: Science and Innovation from Antiquity to Modernity

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Your world is filled with structures that have stood the test of time. That give character to the cities and landscapes in which they’re located. That are visited by millions of people each year. And that capture our wonder for the marvels of engineering innovation and progress. But while structures such as the Giza pyramids, Brunelleschi’s dome, and the Brooklyn Bridge are visual spectacles in and of themselves, they are just as important for the way they were designed as for the way they look.

Now, experience the engineering genius that makes these works possible with Understanding the World’s Greatest Structures: Science and Innovation from Antiquity to Modernity—a marvelous learning experience that takes you around the world and reveals the stories behind the most famous structures from thousands of years of history. Delivered by award-winning Professor Stephen Ressler of the United States Military Academy at West Point, a civil engineer and a nationally honored leader in engineering education, these 24 lectures take you on a fascinating and richly illustrated tour that deftly blends history and science to create an unforgettable survey of our world’s most remarkable structural masterpieces.

Embark on a Whirlwind Tour of Great Structures

You spend the first few lectures delving into the scientific principles that govern six basic types of structural elements; the building blocks that compose nearly all of the world’s structures, from arches to columns to cables.

Once you’ve mastered how these and other elements work, you embark on a whirlwind tour of more than 150 great structures that takes you from the deserts of ancient Egypt to the skyscraper race of early 20th-century New York to the inventiveness of postmodern architecture. You’ll learn new insights into some of civilization’s most impressive buildings, bridges, and towers.

  • Parthenon: While known for its perfect proportions and architectural refinements, the Parthenon is actually a rather unsophisticated structural design—especially in its use of interior colonnades to support the roof.
  • Eiffel Tower: The Eiffel Tower is composed of iron bars arranged in interconnected triangles called trusses that can reach great heights with many small elements and allow for versatility of form.
  • Brooklyn Bridge: The four main cables of this suspension bridge are central to its ability to span the East River in New York City. Each of these cables is built up from over 5,000 steel wires.

Understanding the World’s Greatest Structures also considers structures that, while perhaps less familiar or more recent, are just as important to fully grasping the intricacy of structural engineering. These include Switzerland’s Salginatobel Bridge and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Learn from Educational Expertise and Dynamic 3-D Models

Professor Ressler’s work and his dedication to engineering education have won him numerous national awards, including the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Outstanding Projects and Leaders Award—the organization’s highest honor. He brings this same award-winning knowledge and dedication to every lecture of Understanding the World’s Greatest Structures. Couple this with the stunning 3-D animations that re-create and allow you to take apart individual pieces of great structures, and you have an engaging learning experience that will change the way you think about the buildings around you.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Learning to See and Understand Structure
    How are ideas for buildings, bridges, and towers transformed from sketches to concrete reality? What are the three essential qualities that make a structure great? What's the difference between seeing a structure and actually understanding it? Discover the answers to these and other questions in this introductory lecture. x
  • 2
    The Science of Structure—Forces in Balance
    Explore how two types of external forces—loads (forces applied to structures) and reactions (forces developed at supports, in response to applied loads)—act on structures such as Kansas City's Chouteau Bridge. Also, learn how these forces are related to the most important concept in engineering mechanics: equilibrium. x
  • 3
    Internal Forces, Stress, and Strength
    Use the Simple Tension Test (pulling on a structural element until it reaches the breaking point) as a gateway to understanding the concepts of internal force, stress, and strength. Then, see these concepts at work in structures such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Athens' Olympic Velodrome. x
  • 4
    From Wood to Steel—Properties of Materials
    Materials profoundly influence the form, function, and structure of great buildings, bridges, and towers. Using steel (which is superior in terms of strength, ductility, and stiffness) as a benchmark, compare the structural properties of wood, masonry, concrete, and iron—and see them at work in thousands of years' worth of structures. x
  • 5
    Building Up—Columns and Buckling
    One of the most potent human aspirations supported by engineering is to build up. Learn how this has been done from antiquity to the present with columns—structural members that carry load primarily in compression. You'll also learn about buckling: the often catastrophic stability failure that occurs in columns with certain geometric characteristics. x
  • 6
    Building Across—Beams and Bending
    Beams, combining tension and compression, are central to the second aspiration supported by engineering: building across long distances. As you survey beams from the primitive lintel over the Lion Gate at Mycenae to Norway's Raftsundet Bridge, you'll investigate scientific developments and transform your understanding of what makes this structural element possible. x
  • 7
    Trusses—The Power of the Triangle
    Trusses, the subject of this fascinating lecture, are rigid frameworks composed of structural members connected at joints and arranged into networks of triangles. Learn how they work to stabilize and support a range of structural wonders, including the Brooklyn Bridge and—most famously—the Eiffel Tower. x
  • 8
    Cables and Arches—The Power of the Parabola
    In this lecture, Professor Ressler introduces you to two final structural elements: cables and arches. The Saint Louis Gateway Arch and the cables of the Golden Gate Bridge are just two examples of breathtaking structural features that also have extensive, occasionally surprising, parallels. x
  • 9
    Loads and Structural Systems
    Structures are heavily influenced by the loads they're designed to carry. First, take a closer look at the most important loads structures must resist, including traffic loads and earthquake loads. Then, using the historic iron building at Watervliet Arsenal in New York, analyze how loads are actually transmitted through structural systems along load paths. x
  • 10
    Egypt and Greece—Pyramids to the Parthenon
    Embark on your tour of different types of structures from around the world and across time. Your first stop: ancient Egypt, and the surprisingly complex engineering of pyramids, including the Great and Red pyramids. Your second stop: ancient Greece, where you visit the domed Treasury of Atreus and break down the structural system of the Parthenon. x
  • 11
    The Glory of Rome in Arches and Vaults
    Learn why the arch is the principal structural feature of ancient Rome. Your detailed case studies range from simple bridges such as the Pont St. Martin and triumphal arches such as the Arch of Titus to massive aqueducts like the Pont du Gard and majestic public spaces like the Baths of Caracalla. x
  • 12
    The Rise and Fall of the Gothic Cathedral
    Gothic cathedrals are lasting testaments to the power of a series of sweeping architectural developments in medieval Europe. After examining the roots of Gothic cathedrals in their Romanesque predecessors, focus on several structural innovations—including flying buttresses and pointed arches—at work in places such as France's Chartres Cathedral. x
  • 13
    Three Great Domes—Rome to the Renaissance
    Trace the dome's evolution from the 1st century A.D. to the Renaissance. It's a journey reflected in the increasingly sophisticated domes of three great structures: the ancient Roman Pantheon, the Byzantine-era basilica of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and the Renaissance-era dome over the Florence cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. x
  • 14
    How Iron and Science Transformed Arch Bridges
    Examine the development of arched bridges during and after the Industrial Revolution. See how the revolutionary Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale paved the way for the development of science-based engineering. Also, see how science contributed to increasingly sophisticated modern bridges such as Spain's Campo Volantin Bridge. x
  • 15
    Suspension Bridges—The Battle of the Cable
    After learning the science behind suspension bridges, begin your two-lecture look at these structural marvels. Here, relive the "Battle of the Cable," in which 19th-century engineers struggled over whether to build suspension cables from iron chains (as in England's Menai Strait Bridge) or steel wire (as in the Brooklyn Bridge). x
  • 16
    Suspension Bridges—The Challenge of Wind
    In July 1940, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge dramatically collapsed in a steady 42-mph wind. In this concluding lecture on suspension bridges, focus on how the Brooklyn Bridge, the Severn Bridge, and other bridges were designed to combat the second great challenge of these record-breaking bridges: their vulnerability to wind-induced vibrations. x
  • 17
    Great Cantilever Bridges—Tragedy and Triumph
    Professor Ressler shows how structural catastrophes produced two bridges that provide a wonderful opportunity to see and understand structure: Scotland's Firth of Forth Bridge and Canada's second Quebec Bridge. You'll also gain insights into the human element of engineering, and the reasons structures turn out the way they do. x
  • 18
    The Rise of Iron- and Steel-Framed Buildings
    How did iron and steel revolutionize building design? Find out in this trip back to late 18th- and early 19th-century Europe and America, where iron-framed structures—such as sheds at England's Chatham Dockyard, New York City's Equitable Life Insurance Building, and Chicago's First Leiter Building—would set the stage for modern skyscrapers. x
  • 19
    The Great Skyscraper Race
    The human aspiration to build upward reaches its climax with the skyscraper. Learn the story behind America's "great skyscraper race" and the increasingly sophisticated buildings it produced. Among the structural masterpieces you examine in depth are the Wainwright Building, the Chrysler Building, the Willis Tower, and the World Trade Center towers. x
  • 20
    The Beauty and Versatility of Modern Concrete
    Concrete, the world's most commonly used construction material, has been used in buildings that are anything but common. See concrete's versatility at work in an incredible range of structures, including Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, the Salginatobel Bridge in the Swiss Alps, and Dubai's Burj Khalifa (currently the world's tallest building). x
  • 21
    Amazing Thin Shells—Strength from Curvature
    Thin shells are unique structural elements that use curvature—cylindrical, dome-like, or saddle-like—to attain strength and stiffness. See these three types of thin shells used creatively in buildings ranging from St. Paul's Cathedral in London to the Zeiss planetarium in Germany to the Trans World Flight Center at New York's JFK Airport. x
  • 22
    Vast Roof Systems of Iron and Steel
    The need for roofs spanning large enclosed spaces led to a startling number of new structural systems in the last 200 years. Look closer at long-span structural configurations in places such as the Houston Astrodome, the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, and even the Hartford Civic Center (the collapse of which offers a lesson in the risks of innovation). x
  • 23
    The Incredible Lightness of Tension Structures
    Apply old concepts in new ways with this lecture on tension structures, where all the principal load-carrying elements are in tension. Explore noteworthy examples, from the cable-supported roof of North Carolina's J. S. Dorton Arena to the suspended dish roof of Madison Square Garden to the cable dome of South Korea's Olympic Gymnastics Hall. x
  • 24
    Strategies for Understanding Any Structure
    What happens when you encounter a noteworthy structure that hasn't been included in this course and you want to know more about it? Professor Ressler devotes his final lecture to answering this question; sending you out into the world with suggested strategies for understanding any structure—great or otherwise. x

Lecture Titles

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Stephen Ressler
Ph.D. Stephen Ressler
United States Military Academy, West Point
Dr. Stephen Ressler is Professor Emeritus from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a Distinguished Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). A registered Professional Engineer in Virginia, he earned a B.S. from West Point and an M.S. and a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from Lehigh University, as well as a Master of Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College. Professor Ressler's papers on engineering education have won seven Best Paper awards from the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). Professor Ressler has also won numerous awards from the ASCE, including the President's Medal and the 2011 Outstanding Projects and Leaders Award-the organization's highest award. His other accolades include the Bliss Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Engineering Education from the Society of American Military Engineers and the Norm Augustine Award for Outstanding Achievement in Engineering Communications from the American Association of Engineering Societies. Professor Ressler served for 34 years as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and retired at the rank of Brigadier General in 2013. While on active duty, he served in a variety of military engineering assignments around the world. He is also a developer and principal instructor for the Excellence in Civil Engineering Education Teaching Workshop, which has trained more than 500 civil engineering faculty members from more than 200 colleges and universities.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by 196 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by An Exceptional Course!!! The universal acclaim this course has received says it all. Those accolades are well-deserved for this is a truly outstanding course. The presentation is excellent. Professor Ressler moves about the stage during his delivery but the camera follows him well. He is animated and enthusiastic. His voice is clear and his style concise. His love for structural engineering is obvious. He reduces structural complexity into basics, explains them, and then uses them to reconstruct the original complex structure. It is a structural engineering course for the lay person. As many others have pointed out, it is the models that set this course apart. Structural design all boils down to mathematics and physics…and a structural engineering course would be loaded with both. The professor does briefly discuss the math and physics but then moves on to explain those principles visually. He could have relied solely on graphics but chose not to. Instead, he constructed working models to demonstrate those principles. Seeing is believing and those models make math an unnecessary prerequisite to the understanding of structure. A picture may be worth a thousand words but, in this course, a functioning model is worth a thousand pictures. Rest assured this course delivers on its promise. You will understand structure. Those models Ressler constructed are works of craftsmanship and some are quite detailed. His preparation time for this course must have been huge. Not only will you understand the engineering of the world’s greatest structures, but as a bonus, you will get a visual tour of them…buildings, bridges, and monuments. There’s history here also. You’ll learn how an ever-developing understanding of structural methods and material allowed for engineering advances from the Egyptian pyramids to the modern skyscraper. Even if you feel you have no interest in the subject matter, I still recommend this course. The presentation and material are so good that they will likely create that interest. That is the skill of a master instructor and I believe Professor Ressler to be one. I would hope that he provides a fit for a future TGC course. I, myself, was interested in the subject matter beforehand and was doubly rewarded by being treated to one of the best courses TGC has ever produced. December 7, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by WOW! One good course! I am very impressed, starting with the first few minutes. Although the course is about engineering, the prof actually starts with poetry! He reads Walt Whitman's poem on engineering. He reads from Vetruvius, references , discusses and shows models and photos of the Brooklyn Bridge, The SIstine Chapel, The CN tower in Toronto, the longest bridge in the world, in Japan, Scittish and Spanish bridges, Eiffel Tower and the White House. He presents the importance of Form Function and Structure. Oh, and this is in the first 20 minutes! Ressler has an excellent presentation style, very lively, enthusiastic, actually not "geeky." He seems experienced to speaking to "lay" audiences and is thereore quite accessible. Yet, this DVD would delight higher level science and engineering buffs. The way Ressler includes issues like history, culture, and the arts integrated with engineering is exciting. However, he doesn't just show pretty stuctures, the lecturer has many tabletop models where he explains the working principles of engineering. You learn about properties of concrete, iron and steel, arch, suspension and cantilever bridges, accounting for wind, load, curvature, buckling and tension. He explains how columns, trusses, domes, arches, beams and and parabolas work and which are best for which function. Thus you learn mechanics as well as aesthetics. And there are extensive case studies, contextualization of history, materials and design. There is even a bit of math and science, for those so inclined. The course guidebook contains excellent photos, drawings, quizzes, and challenges. You will learn so much, and be entertained. And you wil think. And you will notice engineering in the world around you in your daily life. This is one of my favorites, and I have over 100 courses!! May 27, 2011
Rated 5 out of 5 by Structurally Sound and Hard to Top All Reviewers give this course a 5 and recommend it to a friend. They are all correct. Dr. Ressler's course is the Platinum Standard for any Science, Math, or Engineering course offered by TGC. As others have said his passion for his subject, his delivery, and his accompanying models and other props make this a delightfully interesting course in structural engineering. People interested in both the artistic form of buildings, bridges and other structures as well as those people who are more interested in engineering mechanics will find this course quite satisfying; as will anyone in between. Dr. Ressler is unapologetic about diving into the mathematics of engineering mechanics which is refreshing. He does so in such a clear and straightforward way that anyone who has had basic algebra and can read a chart will have no trouble following along. Every concept discussed includes a detailed structural model for demonstration and typically one or more photographs of international structures from different eras with highlighting to illustrate the application of the structural concepts. Several well placed videos also help illustrate his points (I never tire of seeing the clip of the Tacoma narrows bridge collapse as it illustrates some very basic points of classical physics). Obviously Dr. Ressler worked well with the production team as the production quality is first rate. Judicious use is made of on screen text, side by side and picture in picture views. The accompanying course guidebook is equally outstanding. It contains high quality notes on each lecture, a timeline for construction of the various structures, a glossary, and a bibliography. The guidebook also has two outstanding features I have not seen in any of the other many TGC science/math courses I have taken. After each lecture there are a set of engineering problems and/or questions to consider which require the student to actually do the engineering calculations. Answers are included in the back of the guidebook. Also, there is a detailed multi-page table listing all the structures mentioned in the lectures chronologically with their design engineer, location and the importance to the advancement of structural engineering. Like many of the structures examined, this course is a masterpiece!! I not only strongly recommend this course to anyone with any interest in this area, I have already purchased Dr. Ressler's second TGC course. October 30, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by One of the Best This is easily one of the best courses I have taken with the Teaching Company. Even if you have never taken an engineering course Prof Ressler gives you enough background in statics and strength of materials to understand the principles of structure design. If you have taken statics and strength of materials it will refresh ideas you might have not thought about in years. I was sorry to see it end and look forward to taking his new course. October 7, 2014
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