Humans have been changing the world for millennia. Today we’re surrounded by incredible buildings; great feats of engineering have become commonplace. But what we take for granted would shake the foundations of humans even 100 years ago.
Here are some of the greatest buildings humans have ever erected. They’re signposts of humanity’s reach, always stretching higher, farther, bigger, and better. Each has changed the world and our understanding of it, and made us better builders, in its own way.
1. The Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt
The first major construction project in history, it confirmed humanity’s ability to change the landscape. Built roughly 4,500 years ago by an estimated 200,000 laborers, it stood as the tallest man-made structure for over 3,000 years. Built with remarkable precision, it contains about 2.3 million 2.5-ton blocks.
2. Great Wall of China
At over 5,500 miles in length, the Great Wall of China changed the Asian landscape and protected Northern China from invaders for hundreds of years. Construction on this engineering marvel began in the 3rd century BC and didn’t fully stop until the 17th century AD.
3. The Colosseum of Rome
The crown jewel in one of the world’s mightiest empires—one renowned for its engineering feats—the Colosseum was built in just eight years, between 72 and 80 AD. Rather than building into hillsides, as was typically done for ancient amphitheaters, engineers built a freestanding structure capable of holding 50,000 spectators—one that became a model for modern sporting venues.
4. Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal redefined architecture—while so many buildings around the world were built for practical purposes or for reverence, emotion took the fore with the Taj Mahal. It’s a mausoleum built for love, a testament of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s love for his wife. Shah Jahan’s affection shows in all the details—precious and semiprecious stones, precise symmetry, complex reliefs carved into marble. It’s one of the greatest examples of engineering and architecture being used to move the soul.
5. Eiffel Tower
In 1889, the Eiffel Tower finally surpassed the Great Pyramid of Giza as the tallest man-made structure in the world, a title it held until the completion of the Chrysler Building in 1930. Originally built as a temporary structure, it began the trend of engineering feats reaching for the sky—a trend that continues unabated.
6. Panama Canal
The completion of the Panama Canal in 1914 realized a dream 400 years in the making, since the discovery of the Isthmus of Panama by Vasco Balboa. A French attempt to build a canal was abandoned after eight years, $260 million, and thousands of lives had been spent on the project. Between the French and US canal builders, more than 25,000 workers died to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The canal cut 8,000 miles off the journey from San Francisco to New York.
7. The Trans-Siberian Railway
In 1891 construction began on a railway to connect Moscow with Vladivostok and in 1916, the link—the world’s longest at 5,772 miles—was complete. The line traverses some of the harshest climate in the world and provides a critical land route connecting the capital with the home of Russia’s Pacific Fleet. The railway spans seven time zones and an end-to-end journey takes eight days to complete. But the ability to shuttle people and goods from one end of the world’s largest country to the other certainly changed the world.
8. Hoover Dam
Built during the height of the Great Depression, Hoover Dam remains an engineering marvel not just because of the materials used to build it—6.6 million tons of concrete, 600 miles of pipe, 45 million pounds of steel—but for the effect it had on the area. Power from Hoover Dam’s generating station and irrigation from Lake Mead allowed the US Southwest to grow: no Hoover Dam? No Las Vegas, no Phoenix, no Los Angeles, at least not as we know them.
9. The English Channel Tunnel
The longest undersea tunnel in the world, the Channel Tunnel—or “Chunnel”—links the UK with continental Europe. Completed in 1994, the 32-mile rail tunnel carries an average of 50,000 passengers and 54,000 tonnes of freight every day.
10. Kansai Airport
When densely populated Osaka needed more airport space, they looked to the ocean. Three mountains provided 27 million cubic yards of landfill for an artificial island and Kansai International Airport opened in 1994. It has already withstood two big tests: the 1995 Kobe earthquake, and a 1998 typhoon with wind speeds up to 120 mph.
11. Millau Viaduct, France
The world’s tallest bridge—the tallest spire is taller than the Eiffel Tower—the Millau Viaduct in France needed 166,000 cubic yards of concrete and 21,000 short tons of steel.
12. Palm Islands, Dubai
At the order of the Prince of Dubai, the Palm Islands were reclaimed from the sea with surprising precision, using dredging ships that sprayed arcs of sand from the floor into areas designated by GPS. The first island was completed in 2010. Unlike so many projects on this list, no concrete or steel was used in the construction of the islands—but they have clearly changed the look of the world.
13. Burj Khalifa, Dubai
Still in Dubai, the Burj Khalifa is by far the world’s tallest building at 828 meters (2,716.5 feet)—number two on the list, CN Tower, is a mere 553 meters tall. There are elevators in the Burj that travel almost that far. The building holds numerous records—to say it pushed the boundaries of modern engineering is almost an understatement.
14. Jiaozhou Bay Bridge, China
The world’s longest bridge opened to traffic in China in June 2011. At 26.3 miles, it’s long enough to run an entire marathon on. The bridge’s builders claim it has the first oversea interchange in the world.
15. International Space Station
One of the signature feats of mankind on Earth is the ability to leave it. Building the International Space Station, a football-field sized zero-G lab floating 200 miles above the surface, has to be a signature engineering feat. It’s given us new perspective on humanity and 15 years after it was ready for habitation, it remains an inspiring symbol of international cooperation.
The original version of this post can be found here.