Recalling a Great Achievement

By Petroski, Henry | ASEE Prism, September 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Recalling a Great Achievement


Petroski, Henry, ASEE Prism


THIS MONTH MARKS the seventy-fifth anniversary of the dedication of Hoover Dam. a great engineering project carried out during a period of financial turmoil. Such an achievement might serve as a model for what could be dreamed of today.

Like many an ambitious project, the idea for a dam across the Colorado River began in the minds of visionaries who perceived not only problems bui also solutions. Among these people were politicians, scientists, and, of course, engineers.

The Colorado was both blessing and curse to the states through which it ran. Il could bring much-needed water for irrigation, but it could also bring floods, carrying silt that wreaked havoc on vital irrigation canals and the course of the river itself.

In 1917. Phil Swing, a freshman congressman from southern California, introduced legislation to construct a canal to serve the Colorado River basin. The engineer Arthur Powell Davis argued for a more comprehensive plan that would benefit not only California but also Hie six other states laying claim to the river's water.

A comprehensive hydrological and geological study of the river and its canyons led to the recommendation that a large flood control and hydroelectric dam be constructed in the vicinity of Boulder Canyon, with the revenue from selling the generated electricity eventually repaying the cost of the project.

Before plans could go forward, however, the seven states claiming water rights had to come to an agreement about how it would be apportioned. Herberl Hoover, whose distinguished career as a mining engineer and leadership in World War I humanitarian relief efforts had led to his appointment as U.S. secretary of Commerce, played a central role in the negotiations. It was his engineering sense and political savvy that led Lo the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which paved the way for the !928 enabling legislation.

Where exactly to locate the dam was influenced not only by the nature of the rock in the canyon walls and floor but also by proximity to supplies of sand and gravel for making concrete and by accessibility to the construction site. …

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