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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  • 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 330.
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
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Incredibly exciting course It’s difficult to communicate in words the intellectual excitement this course provides. I have graduate level training in engineering, although I don’t have specialization or career experience in structural engineering. I wish Professor Ressler had been my instructor in undergraduate mechanics classes. He presents in an easy to understand way the basic, overarching physical principles underlying structure analysis and engineering. He has a wonderful way of enabling intuitive understanding, with explanations that, while mainly qualitative, are also rigorous. I learned fascinating new material and also have a better understanding of ideas learned long ago. The small scale physical models he uses to aid understanding are fantastically effective and enjoyable. His effective integration of physical principles and their application in a broad range of real world structures also greatly enhanced my appreciation of architectural aesthetics. Thanks to Professor Ressler and The Great Courses for this wonderful course.
Date published: 2017-10-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Right up my alley Nice mixture of science, history and engineering with theory and examples. Watched it twice.
Date published: 2017-10-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Sad when the series ended.... This was an amazing lecture series. I learned tremendous amounts. Professor Ressler presents the material in a very clear, engaging manner, with a perfect mixture of historical, aesthetic and engineering material. I wished the series had gone on and on (so that I could learn about more structures, more engineering innovations, more history, etc). I eagerly look forward to other series by Professor Ressler.
Date published: 2017-10-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from great presentation With an undergraduate degree in engineering I am enlightened with each lesson. I think the most impressive part is not only great visuals of the "Greatest Structures" but the demonstrations explaining each concept. Well done, informative and letting me more fully appreciate The Greatest Structures. I'll never look at them in the same way again.
Date published: 2017-10-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting course! I've always wondered about many of the built structures in our world. Things like bridges, dams, and buildings... this course does a nice job of explaining all that. If you are of an engineering bent, I recommend this course: there's a reason things look they way they do!
Date published: 2017-09-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very informative I will never look at a building, bridge or other structure the same way as before. Entertaining and informative. Really well done with the models and understandable graphics.
Date published: 2017-08-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Expanations of Fundimental Concepts As a retired geotechnical engineer I particularly liked the first half of the course. General Ressler did a great job explaining and demonstrating the basics of mechanics. His models were outstanding and really helped to explain why and how each structural element works. I wish I had had the general for a teacher. I also wish I had his woodworking skills. The models are works of engineering art. I also enjoyed the second half of the course. I particularly thought the explanations of how the various types of structures evolved when material and mathematical advancements occurred. My one negative criticism would be that there was no discussion of how the loads were transferred to the ground, the foundations, but that's due to my background. Well worth the time. A truly Great Course!
Date published: 2017-07-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from May be the best course I've ever taken Fast paced and packed with fascinating information. Expertly presented. Easy to understand. Lots of great photos, examples and demonstrations. I couldn't stop watching.
Date published: 2017-06-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Incredibly well-prepared I have purchased quite a few courses in various areas, and none is better than this one. The lecturer clearly knows his field, and just as obviously enjoys it. He is more prepared than the lecturers in any of the other courses I have watched. The editing is outstanding, the photos are on point, and the models that he has prepared to illustrate his points are excellent. There is nothing weak in this course at all. I would purchase another of Dr. Ressler's courses in a heartbeat.
Date published: 2017-06-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Clear,concise and thorough Clever use of models helped explain the structural principles.The historical perspective was both interesting and informative.As the author said, I will never look at structures the same way again.
Date published: 2017-05-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course This is an amazing course! Dr. Ressler has put a lot of preparation into this course and it shows. I bought the course because I was mildly interested in the subject. I did not expect to learn so much or to be so entertained. I expected a sort of picture tour of famous buildings and bridges. I did not expect to learn so much about engineering. Don't let my comment about engineering prevent you from buying the course. Dr. Ressler has a model for everything! This course is loaded with pictures, graphics, and models which he assembles as he explains concepts. It is a fascinating set of DVDs. This is one of the best sets I've purchased and I purchased many! Everything about this course is perfect. The pace, the presentation, the material---PERFECT. This gets a HIGHLY RECOMMEND from me!
Date published: 2017-05-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Your World View Will Change When I purchased this course I had no training whatsoever in construction materials, design or the history and development of great structural achievement. I am also somewhat of a math-phobe so fortunately I didn't need to know anything about higher math or physics to understand exactly what Professor Ressler was explaining. His models and illustrations served as lucid visual aids, and his explanations throughout the entire lecture series were cogent and pleasantly engaging. After finishing this series I don't pass an arch, a bridge or a building without thinking about the principles of construction I learned in this series. My world view has changed, and I believe yours will too if you view all of the lectures in this course.
Date published: 2017-04-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very interesting. Explains topics very well. The explanations are very good. The instructor's enthusiasm for the subject matter makes the lessons very enjoyable.
Date published: 2017-04-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Model for All Professors You can read all about this course in other glowing reviews. It's as good as it gets. I'll make a simple suggestion that Great Courses madate that all professors be required to watch Prof Ressler at work. His enthusiasm for the subject, organization, and use of actual demonstrations along with computer graphics should be emulated by all other professors. All Great Courses professors know their subject, but not all know hot to teach. Let them learn from Prof Ressler.
Date published: 2017-03-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I loved this course If I had benefited from the likes of Dr Ressler back in the day when I was still in college, I might well have chosen a completely different career...in civil engineering. This is an outstanding survey of the principles of physical structures. Moreover, the material is delivered with enthusiasm, wonderful clarity, and eloquence. The cadets at West Point truly have a tremendous asset in this wonderful teacher.
Date published: 2017-03-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent overview First of all, let me say I found Dr Ressler engaging, enthusiastic for his subject and pleasurable to listen to. I found the material to be a perfect introduction; he covered many (if not all) of the basics with clear explanations. I qualified my last sentence because I don't know if there are more basics to cover. I am a rube to this subject so I cannot state with any certainty exactly how thorough it is. I will just say that, for me, the coverage was perfect. It whet my appetite for further investigation. That really summarizes all of The Great Courses I have audited; they are introductory overviews. One certainly doesn't gain sufficient knowledge to go out and build bridges or skyscrapers after this course but you gain insight into many structures you may have seen before and maybe mildly wondered about. While that may be true for all of The Great Courses, I think the distinction between good and very good comes down to the presentation. The experts is other courses were just as knowledgeable in their subjects but not quite as entertaining to listen to as Dr Ressler. Thank you, sir, for an excellent course! (I have another of Dr Ressler's I haven't started yet but am now even more enthused to experience than I was just from the course description.)
Date published: 2017-03-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Not just for engineers...... 1. This is an absolute must for any student about to take any kind of structures course. Fabulous common sense introduction to it all before you look at it with mathematics. 2. Also useful for anyone else with an interest in why everything is standing up the way it is (and falling down the way it is). Prof R's other course on Everyday Engineering is also very good. He's a natural.
Date published: 2017-02-25
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