Gigantism Is a Never-Ending Temptation for Engineers and Designers

From the pyramids to the Hummer, more is often less

3 min read

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.

Of course, the most infamous overshoot of all airplane designs was Howard Hughes’s H-4 Hercules, dubbed the Spruce Goose,” the largest plane ever made out of wood. It had a wingspan of nearly 100 meters, and it was propelled by eight reciprocating engines, but it became airborne only once, for less than a minute, on 2 November 1947, with Hughes himself at the controls.

Another right-size giant is Ford’s heavy and powerful F-150, now in its 14th generation: In the United States, it has been the bestselling pickup since 1977 and the best-selling vehicle since 1981. In contrast, the Hummer, a civilian version of a military assault vehicle, had a brief career but is now being resurrected in an even heavier electric version: The largest version using an internal combustion engine, the H1, weighed nearly 3.5 tonnes, the electric Hummer, 4.1 tonnes. I doubt we will see 14 generations of this beast.

But these lessons of excess carry little weight with designers and promoters pursuing record sizes. Architects discuss buildings taller than a mile, cruise ship designers have already packed nearly 7,000 people into a single vessel (Symphony of the Seas, built 2018) and people are dreaming about much larger floating cities (perfect for spreading the next pandemic virus). There are engineers who think that we will soon have wind turbines whose more than 200-meter diameter blades will fold, like palm fronds, in hurricanes.

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).

This article appears in the January 2022 print issue as “Extreme Designs.”

Gigantism in the Air

John MacNeill

Many flying behemoths have been tried, and most have failed. Of the planes shown in the illustration, the only one that has succeeded is the Antonov An-225, designed in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. This large cargo-lifter carries up to 130 tons of heavy machinery or construction parts on chartered flights to all continents

The Conversation (1)
FB TS 21 Dec, 2021

IMHO the (revolutionary) future of airliners is NOT simply making current designs much bigger (like Airbus A380) nor going hypersonic nor switching to flying wing/body designs!

What is really needed is making airliners much bigger but also making them much safer & able to takeoff/land vertically or from/to extremely short/simple/cheap runways anywhere!


For example, imagine joining together 2 or 3 fuselages & adding 2 or 3 sets of main wings that has highly adjustable angle of attack (& no other complex mechanisms/flaps etc)!

The Lies that Powered the Invention of Pong

A fake contract masked a design exercise–and started an industry

4 min read
Pong arcade game in yellow cabinet containing black and white TV display, two knobs are labeled Player 1 and Player 2, Atari logo visible.
Roger Garfield/Alamy

In 1971 video games were played in computer science laboratories when the professors were not looking—and in very few other places. In 1973 millions of people in the United States and millions of others around the world had seen at least one video game in action. That game was Pong.

Two electrical engineers were responsible for putting this game in the hands of the public—Nolan Bushnell and Allan Alcorn, both of whom, with Ted Dabney, started Atari Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif. Mr. Bushnell told Mr. Alcorn that Atari had a contract from General Electric Co. to design a consumer product. Mr. Bushnell suggested a Ping-Pong game with a ball, two paddles, and a score, that could be played on a television.

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