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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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 216-page printed course guidebook
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  • 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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Reviews

Understanding the World's Greatest Structures: Science and Innovation from Antiquity to Modernity is rated 4.9 out of 5 by 316.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I wish I had a professor like him. Talk about explaining the basics with great and simple demonstrations. I really got hooked to structures and have a better understanding and a new way to look at the built elements that surround me.
Date published: 2019-11-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Understanding the World's Greatest Structures This course is absolutely fantastic. I own quite a few and this is the best one. The presenter is very personable, knowledgeable and entertaining. I love it when he says, "Let's build a model". I look at buildings and structures in a completely different way now. I'm going to watch this again to further consolidate the content. I am so impressed with Professor Ressler that I have ordered Everyday Engineering and look forward to gaining new insights.
Date published: 2019-09-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellant Instructor and course contents I enjoyed learning the aspects of structural engineering. The models used to emphasize what engineering principles were applied to various types of structures enhanced the learning experience. Additionally, using actual world structures to give you a better understanding of subject presented.
Date published: 2019-08-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Truly the BEST!! Professor Ressler is The Best lecturer of all the classes I have taken from The Great Courses! Hands down. And I've had some excellent professors and quite a few courses on a variety of subjects. Not only does he obviously just love what he's teaching, he's quite an actor! He simply must be reading a script, but it is nearly impossible to be sure of that. He's so animated and seems so natural that you simply cannot be bored. I can imagine sitting in his class live and it sounding just like this. He's funny, at ease and well prepared. And his material is organized into a simple to understand structure starting from the beginning and progressing in a way that even I, with no engineering background at all, am learning far more than I hoped. The models and demos are part of the real reason why. They are basic, clear and highly understandable. You just find yourself saying "Oh! That's how that works!" and you get it. I love all the pictures of structures and architecture, the graphics and computer enhancement making things make sense and all the history he adds in. I am so thrilled with every one of these lectures that I am already dreading coming to the end and want to know what to take next! Does Professor Ressler do a follow up course? Truly this is the best of the many excellent classes I have enjoyed in the short time since I discovered the Great Courses. Thank you, Professor Ressler! Except for the math, you almost make me want to be an engineer!!
Date published: 2019-08-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Is This the Best of the Best? As I am writing the 312th review of this course, there is little new that I can comment about that has not already observed. Nor can I add to the insights of the engineers (many of them civil or structural engineers) who are well qualified to critique from a professional perspective. So rather than comment, excepting in passing on the course itself, this review will focus on a comparative model. To begin General Ressler is an outstanding presenter. His demeanor is always professional, not hurried, but at the same time is energetic and clearly enthusiastic. He does not have the over-the-top, rapid-fire humor of Professor Greenberg, nor the raconteur-ship of Dr. Harl, nor the erudition of Dr. Vandiver nor the calm, sly humor of Professor Kloss, nor the fieldwork of Dr. Barnhart. But all of these professors have some to many valid detractors among TGC reviewers. Statistically, Dr. Ressler’s critics approach zero. Is he best of TGC instructors? No doubt as subjective as this is, he ranks among my top 10. This course is as well organized as one would expect, not only from a TGC course, but from an engineer. The flow is thematic and within that, chronological from establishing enough foundation for even non-engineers and those who have not taken high school physics to appreciate and understand subsequent lectures to detailed analysis of specific types of structures is flawless. Although I am not an engineer, I never felt lost or confused as to the course’s content. The design of the course is targeted to reasonably well-informed adults who are non-specialists. To be sure, there is a bit of math, but no more is required than a bit of being able to remember high school algebra, and even that is not really necessary. Those who have little to no background can appreciate and understand what is going on, those with a bit of high school math and physics will perhaps get a bit more from the course. Those have been exposed to college physics and static/mechanics courses will likely get even more and for the structural and civil engineers who might take the course—well as one excellent reviewer observed, “just sit back and enjoy the ride”. For me, this is among the top courses from a structural perspective. Accompanying graphics are simply outstanding. Every aspect that is explained during the course of a lecture is shown pictorially, usually with the points being made highlighted in the representation. Some of the graphic elements are CAD generated and representational and others are either photographs of buildings or representational sketches. Each sketch, diagram, photo or computer generated model emphasizes the points being made in the lectures. Nothing is wasted. If this is not the best use of TGC graphics I have seen, it is certainly among the top ten. Also supporting the lectures are the physical models that Professor Ressler has built that demonstrate various construction elements—simple but effective. There are only a few other TGC (that I have seen) that use physical props so effectively. The examples that come to mind are Dr. Wolfson’s course on physics and Dr. Filippenko’s course on astronomy (for me this comparison is high praise indeed). This course’s course book may be the very best that I have encountered. While it is not overly verbose, the points that will be made in each lecture is complete. The questions at the end of the lecture are well thought out, and often non-trivial. Here it should be mentioned that while the math in the lectures is quite simple, those who wish for a bit more rigor may well be challenged by some of the questions posed at the end of each guidebook lecture. Fortunately, those questions marked with asterisks are answered in some detail at the very end of the guidebook. Is this then the very best of TTC courses? No doubt this is subjective and has no definitive answer. For me, it is among the very best and for the many, many 5 star reviews, most TC customers feel the same way.
Date published: 2019-04-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Watched it over and over. Well presented and the models and graphic clearly point out the significant structural design flaws and needs. I learn more each time I retake the course. I've even reviewed a specific lecture prior to trips when I know I'll be passing a significant architectural treasure.
Date published: 2019-04-07
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Heavy on detail Would love to finish this challenging course, but it won't open. Got as far as the fifth lesson. This appears to be an older course so maybe that is the problem
Date published: 2019-03-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding lecturer, excellent presentations I liked this course so much that I moved on to view the other courses that Dr. Ressler has done for The Great Courses. You can't go wrong with any of them. Yes, he's an engineer (so am I) and this shines through in his personality, but he also has outstanding communication skills. I especially like–in all of his courses–the visual aids he uses to help you understand what he's talking about.
Date published: 2019-03-14
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