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

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

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
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 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

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  • Download 24 video lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 216-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 216-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos, illustrations & diagrams
  • Suggested readings
  • Timeline

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Your professor

Stephen Ressler

About Your Professor

Stephen Ressler, Ph.D.
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...
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Understanding the World's Greatest Structures: Science and Innovation from Antiquity to Modernity is rated 4.9 out of 5 by 315.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Perfect level of detail for a non-student The course was very well laid out, frequently referred to. The graphics made concepts clear. Presenter had the knowledge and passion.
Date published: 2019-01-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The teacher is great. An engineer with absence of aesthetics and hisorty. I was particularly interested inwhich buildings he discussed since I teach a course in American architectural history and reference many old structures.my typing is terrible abundance not absence.
Date published: 2019-01-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very well presented Really enjoyed this course! The instructor was enthusiastic and great at making the difficult material understandable. His use of models let you picture the construction. The first 5 lessons might be a bit daunting for someone with little math or physics background but well worth staying with it.
Date published: 2018-12-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Not just a pretty face, but great "bones"! The Instructor does an excellent job in providing simple demonstrations of the underlying forces to be considered in producing successful structure...and cites various famous structures which illustrates how the architect managed such forces.
Date published: 2018-12-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic subject Enabling me to see architecture from an engineer's perspective.
Date published: 2018-12-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best I have always enjoyed building things. Professor Ressler's presentation of the fundamental concepts of structural engineering is both compelling and easily understandable. His use of models to explain the concepts makes the ideas easy to grasp and the references to historical structures shows how the concepts have been applied over time. I have watched over 80 courses from the Great Courses and I think this is one of the very best.
Date published: 2018-11-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course on magnificent structures Great course. Dr. Ressler is very communicative and shares his knowledge of world's great structures. Examples are many. He demonstrates the concepts of structures using scaled down models.
Date published: 2018-11-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course material! The course covered so much material, but Dr. Ressler helped to make it manageable.
Date published: 2018-11-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic speaker and material! Loved this material and learned a great deal. The professor used fabulous models to demonstrate structural concepts used by ancient Greeks to modern skyscrapers! I will look at buildings and bridges more astutely now!
Date published: 2018-11-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Will change how you look at structures !! This is an excellent course, very well presented with outstanding examples to help understand structures around the world. Dr Ressler is one of the best communicators I've experienced in a "Great Course". His knowledge of the subject is very impressive!
Date published: 2018-11-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Ressler & Dwyer...what a team! Dr Ressler has presented a textbook (yep, I went there) example of how a course covering the basic elements of structural engineering should be taught. A course such as this needs to be well-based in the basic concepts, established prior to diving into the world's famous, or even infamous, structures. This is especially true for the average Great Courses audience (maybe a little biased toward the liberal arts...no offense intended). The presentation style is upbeat and Dr Ressler's enthusiasm is infectious. The use of models and animation (thanks to Peter Dwyer) is particularly effective. In my profession (geoscience) we have a friendly rivalry with our engineers (they tend to be more conservative and, well, kinda 'no fun'...if only I had worked with more structural engineers! I will be traveling to Cornwall, UK later this week and intend to visit the Cathedral in Truro...the pre-trip research shows a gothic structure similar to one of Ressler's examples from Lecture 11. I'll be testing myself on that one! Another strong point on these lectures is the excellent guidebook. Many times a guidebook is overlooked in video presentations...don't ignore this one (not only because it gives the answers to the lecture-ending questions), it's a perfect compliment to the lectures! Well done...I will never look at another structure the same way, especially when noticing those pesky cracks in the ceilings of poorly designed buildings. Highest recommendation (on par with my favorite lecturer, Dr Hazen). Get it when it's on sale...a bonus with a coupon.
Date published: 2018-09-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Essential to start your trek to become an engineer I Should’ve buy this before starting my master in civil engineering.
Date published: 2018-09-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Tremendous Learning Experience Dr. Ressler does it again. Loved the organization and explanation of equilibrium of forces as applied in structures of various materials. Would have liked a more rigorous explanation of some of the more technical aspects as the calculation of the moment of inertia in tension elements to include the angular aspects or at least references to another source that is not for engineers. Also wanted a more detailed explanation of 3D wire frame designs as to why some trusses aren't connected by pins and still considered a truss.
Date published: 2018-08-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enticing title Excellent content, presented in a very understandable format with great models and illustration. Prof. Ressler does a terrific job.
Date published: 2018-08-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Engaging, informative, rewarding I have dozens of the great courses, and this is one of the two or three best; I say this as a novice to this field. The great care the professor took with models illustrated his complex points very well; the structure of the course, with the solid groundwork about materials and basic engineering principles being laid before detailed examinations of particular structures was well-thought and effective. The professor's presentation was clear and engaging without any of the content being "dumbed down". I enjoyed listening to the several of the lectures more than once (the lecture on domes was especially eye-opening and enjoyable) and am moved to write this review after a recent trip to Europe. I did not purchase the course for this reason, but I did have occasion to explore some cathedrals in Europe and was amazed at how easily I could evaluate several of their features that I would otherwise have been completely ignorant of, or overlooked altogether. I am an intelligent (I think!) amateur, a political science professor with very limited background in technology. Not only do I feel much more informed about great structures now, but my trip to Europe was much more rewarding. One of the greatest of the "great" courses, I think.
Date published: 2018-07-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best of 100 Great Courses I've taken Crystal clear presentation. Well organized. Great visuals. Makes engineering exciting.
Date published: 2018-07-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Gadgetman Learns Structures I have greatly enjoyed this courses. Tying in the history of the development of structures added to the course. I now have a greater appreciation for structures now. The instructor was very good. I'm an engineer. You must get the video version to see the demos.
Date published: 2018-06-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic all around! Dr. Ressler is one of the best professors I have encountered. He is an excellent presenter, breaking complex ideas down so even notices can understand. He uses demonstrations to illustrate important points and possess a subtle humor that is endearing. His lectures are all structured effectively to emphasize one or a few main ideas, which he introduces at the beginning, explains throughout and re-iterates in closing. The computer modeling and real world images are integrated in a way that greatly enhances the entertainment and learning values of this set of lectures. I highly recommend this professor and this set of lectures!
Date published: 2018-06-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Loved it! Entertaining, informative, interesting I very much enjoyed this course. Professor Ressler’s diagrams, photos and examples – along with his enthusiasm were exemplary in explaining and showing the progression of the engineering principles throughout history – a subject that typically could put a sack of cement to sleep with boring details and [essential] nerd math. Well done!
Date published: 2018-05-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from REALLY INTERESTING I got this Great Courses on greatest structures, mainly because they are beautiful, fascinating, and I enjoy visiting them. This is my first Great Courses other than music. Have made a good start on lessons. The instructor takes this subject I knew nothing about from ground level principles (an excellent way to start with me) and builds from there. He's interesting, and conveys topics clearly -- with enough example at the principle stage of Brooklyn Bridges or woolen mills to pique curiosity. Very good course!
Date published: 2018-04-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Magnificent. I was greatly impressed by this course. Professor Ressler's scope and clear explanations make it engaging from beginning to end. Sometimes, it became difficult for me to stop watching lectures. Moreover, important lessons are to be learned for those involved in technical work.
Date published: 2018-04-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another terrific course by Prof. Ressler The first six lectures of the course concentrate on an overall review of the fundamentals of engineering mechanics and material properties. Although as a retired engineer, I was already familiar with the principles of mechanics, it was a good refresher. I was particularly interested in the discussion of the properties of commonly used structural materials. In the industry where I worked, we mostly used marine aluminum alloys, so it was interesting to see how the properties of other materials compared. The remaining lectures of the course discuss the various types of structural systems (trusses, arches, suspension bridges, etc.) in more less chronological order. Professor Ressler is a natural born teacher if there ever was one. His presentation style conveys his clear enthusiasm for the subject material while appearing to be very natural. His frequent use of physical or 3-D CAD models of the various structures provided clear understanding of the principles involved. I had ordered this course after enjoying his more recent course on everyday engineering and I was not disappointed. The only other major type of structure that he could have covered here is pressurized vessels such as piping and inflated structures (as used in hovercraft). Overall a very enjoyable course.
Date published: 2018-03-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well taught I have not complied the course at this writing. But so far it is excellent. After I complete the course I would like to opportunity to finalize my comments.
Date published: 2018-03-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic! This course is fantastic, and it is a perfect example of why I watch Great Courses. Science isn't my strongest subject, but the professor is one of the best at making complicated scientific concepts understandable and fun to learn. The professor's enthusiasm is incredible. He is enjoyable to watch and extremely informative. I cannot come up with any criticisms for this course. The lessons built on each other, and I learned a great deal. Just today, I drove under an arched bridge and found myself analyzing it using the lessons I learned in this course. I am very happy that I took the time to watch this.
Date published: 2018-03-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Perfect! Hard to fault this fantastic course! This is the perfect introduction into how structures work. Never knew engineering is so interesting! Prof Ressler is just superb in his presentation and enthusiasm! I can just sense how he enjoys his area of expertise so much and this has "infected" my enthusiasm as well! I go past an old bridge to work and never took much notice but after the course I saw that it can the single pin truss system and immediately recognised it could be a Whipple style truss. I was quite pleased when I later read in the newspaper that the bridge will be "retiring" in future and indeed it was a Whipple truss, and it is the only one in the state that is still in use and has obvious historical significance. If I didn't take this course I wouldn't have appreciated the significance of this bridge! (and perhaps wondered what all the fuss is in preserving such a old bridge)
Date published: 2018-01-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Too many bridges to cross There are many types of great structures in the world: palaces, dams, stadiums, castles, churches, public buildings, skyscrapers, bridges, etc. This class focuses out of proportion on bridges. I like bridges as much as the next person. However, the emphasis in lecture after lecture on bridges leads to the exclusion of other structures. The teacher is quite effective. The models used are informative.
Date published: 2018-01-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Very interesting, easy to follow, great use of models, engaging professor, well organized in content, studies both ancient structures as well as modern, well known as much as new and lesser known examples.
Date published: 2017-12-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Kept getting better and better While the first few lectures challenged my attention, once the principles were applied to the structures around the world - it was fascinating. One of the best courses I have taken.
Date published: 2017-11-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent teacher! It is difficult to describe, it is fascinating course. Professor make it looks like a simple subject, but it is not. We see and hear great examples.For example, I did not know that the Golden Gate Bridge was overloaded by the people! I am jealous of US Army officers, they have an excellent scholar.
Date published: 2017-11-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent lecture I have only seen a few lectures but they are enough to judge the quality of the product. The topics are well thought out an interesting. They contain sufficient technical detail to support the points made in the presentation. The presenter is outstanding, making things clear and easy to understand. The lectures are most enjoyable.
Date published: 2017-11-07
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