Gigantism Is a Never-Ending Temptation for Engineers and Designers

Vaclav Smil, writing at IEEE Spectrum: There is a fundamental difference between what can be designed and built and what makes sense. History provides a lesson in the shape of record-setting behemoths that have never since been equaled. The Egyptian pyramids started small, and in just a few generations, some 4,500 years ago, there came Khufu's enormous pyramid, which nobody has ever tried to surpass. Shipbuilders in ancient Greece kept on expanding the size of their oared vessels until they built, during the third century BCE, a tessarakonteres, with 4,000 oarsmen. That vessel was too heavy, too ponderous, and therefore a naval failure. And architect Filippo Brunelleschi's vast cupola for Florence's Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, built without scaffolding and finished in 1436, was never replicated. The modern era has no shortage of such obvious overshoots. The boom in oil consumption following the Second World War led to ever-larger oil tankers, with sizes rising from 50,000 to 100,000 and 250,000 deadweight tonnes (dwt). Seven tankers exceeded 500,000 dwt, but their lives were short, and nobody has built a million-dwt tanker. Technically, it would have been possible, but such a ship would not fit through the Suez or Panama canals, and its draft would limit its operation to just a few ports. The economy-class-only configuration of the Airbus A380 airliner was certified to carry up to 853 passengers, but it has not been a success. In 2021, just 16 years after it entered service, the last plane was delivered, a very truncated lifespan. Compare it with the hardly puny Boeing 747, which will see its final delivery in 2022, 53 years after the plane's first flight, an almost human longevity. Clearly, the 747 was the right-sized record-breaker. [...] Depending on where you stand you might see all of this either as an admirable quest for new horizons (a quintessential human striving) or irrational and wasteful overreach (a quintessential human hubris).

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