Books about Engineering
February 13, 2019 7:38 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for recommendations on nonfiction books about engineering; specifically, a group of people coming together to build something that has never been built before. Or multiple groups of people in competition to do so.

I really like the podcasts Omega Tau and American Innovations, and would like to hear well crafted stories about the troubleshooting, trade-offs, and political / economic battles involved and how they were overcome.

Some examples that I've enjoyed:
  • The Great Bridge (Brooklyn Bridge)
  • Racing The Beam (about the Atari 2600)
  • David Macaulay (pretty much anything he's done, but I'm not particularly interested in illustration)
  • Command and Control (nuclear silo operation and mishaps, although this is a little off the mark since it's not really about a single engineering project)
I'm open to any engineering project, but some examples of subjects I'd be interested in are:
  • any specific project during the space race
  • Early computers, or specific feats in the history of computing
  • Massive or early tunneling operations
  • submarines
  • nuclear power plants
  • dams / dykes
  • colliders
  • solar / wind power pioneering
posted by condour75 to Writing & Language (36 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
A Path Between the Seas by David McCullough is a thorough and exhaustive history of the Panama canal. It's not just about the engineering challenges but that is a huge part of the story.
posted by muddgirl at 7:48 PM on February 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

For multiple groups of people competing to build a thing, and massive-for-the-time tunnels, you want The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway by Doug Most.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:04 PM on February 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've always enjoyed The Great Escape by Brickhill. It's about the escape tunnels dug out of Stalag Luft III in WWII. Certainly fits your Tunneling criteria if a bit oddly. Ditto for the political/economic side of things to a decent extent. It's really great.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:06 PM on February 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Soul of a New Machine is really one of the early computer books along these lines and I am on page 187.
posted by jessamyn at 8:09 PM on February 13, 2019 [24 favorites]

Oh and The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer (at least I think that's the book on his story that I enjoyed) was really enjoyable as well as Babbage's machine is an amazing achievement in my mind.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:10 PM on February 13, 2019

seconding The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. (jessamyn linked to the wrong wikipedia article but it's only one click further)
posted by intermod at 8:18 PM on February 13, 2019

Hackers by Steven Levy is about the before-times of computers and the Internet.
Dealers of Lightning by Michael Hiltzik is about the medium-times before the personal computer era.
posted by rhizome at 8:23 PM on February 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

Where Wizards Stay Up Late: tells the story of ARPANET and the proto-internet.

The Ultimate History of Video Games: surprisingly detailed and had tidbits I hadn't seen elsewhere.

Seafaring: Kon Tiki. Longitude. (Some other book whose name escapes me about the expeditions to view transits of Venus that isn't Shirley Hazzard's novel)

Chariots for Apollo.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:29 PM on February 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

If you're after breadth as well as depth, try Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World by Simon Winchester.
posted by flabdablet at 8:43 PM on February 13, 2019

Best answer: Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb
posted by supercres at 9:00 PM on February 13, 2019 [9 favorites]

Francis Spufford's Backroom Boys is a survey of some post-war British engineering projects (including the British space program), which also serves as a bit of a cultural history of specifically British industrial design and engineering. Spufford's Red Plenty may fit your requirements as well, which is about the building of—and eventual complete failure of—the Soviet Union's planned scientific economy.

Richard White's Railroaded is a history of the American transcontinental railroads, and the engineering and financial environment of the gilded age, which is not so much a story of engineering success but the failures and mind-blowing corruption of the American later 19thC.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:25 PM on February 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

All Corvettes Are Red (Inside the Rebirth of an American Legend) by James Schaeffer is a great story about the Corvette C5.
posted by mogget at 9:37 PM on February 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

Along the lines of “soul of a new machine” and “dealers of lightning”, both pretty great, are “dreaming in code”, a fascinating book about a big bet on a new kind of groupware (really), and also I remember enjoying “Show stopper!”, about the development of Windows NT.
posted by mmc at 10:08 PM on February 13, 2019

John McPhee's book The Control of Nature has three parts: one about the Army Corps of Engineers preventing the Mississippi river from shifting course, one about an icelandic town saving its harbor from a volcano, and a final section about mudslides in the San Gabriel mountains and the engineering projects that have been developed to help prevent them. All very thoughtful stories about the sometimes limited power of human ingenuity against raw force. Great book.
posted by Rinku at 11:10 PM on February 13, 2019 [4 favorites]

Rhodes had an excellent, if not quite as good as the first, sequel to "Atomic Bomb" called "Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb."
posted by Sunburnt at 11:15 PM on February 13, 2019 [4 favorites]

The Path Between The Seas by David McCullough about the canal in Panama .
posted by hortense at 11:20 PM on February 13, 2019

The Subterranean Railway by Christian Wolmar is a great overview of how London's Underground system came about. Tunnelling is a key theme!
posted by freya_lamb at 12:22 AM on February 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

A colleague just recommended me this: Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed.
posted by Harald74 at 1:48 AM on February 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

"Hacking the XBox: An Introduction to Reverse Engineering" by Andrew "bunnie" Huang. It's now free!
posted by alchemist at 3:11 AM on February 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Project Orion - George Dyson. About the project to build an atomic powered space ship. George is Freeman Dyson's son, who worked on this project (among many other achievements).
posted by crocomancer at 4:46 AM on February 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Older tech and not exactly a single group but all about the issue of cutting edge technology, steam, in a world without established supporting infrastructure: Steam Coffin by John Laurence Busch, is not about the first seam boat but first steam ship to cross the ocean. All the complications, financing, staffing, engineering, politics, and proving tech that must work for the crew to actually survive.
posted by sammyo at 5:07 AM on February 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

I second Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford. It's crunchy in detail and wide in scope, and it's also well-written, which can't be over-valued.

Here's a contemporary review. Here's a published extract about the teenage programmers of the early 80s game Elite -- read it and see if you want more.
posted by rollick at 5:21 AM on February 14, 2019

The Innovators by Walter Isaacson would be a great choice, if you haven't read it yet. It's focused on early computing through through modern time, and a common theme in the book is how most forward progress is driven by groups of people, not individual "geniuses". I enjoyed it a lot.
posted by tybstar at 6:29 AM on February 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

A couple of NYC books that I read when I first moved to the city...
722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York

Water for Gotham - about the building of the Croton Aqueduct/Reservoir
posted by kokaku at 7:45 AM on February 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's more of a story about some divers who got into trouble, but the book Trapped Under The Sea is very good. It's about the giant, 10-mile long waste treatment tunnel built out into Boston Harbor during the 90s, and what can go wrong when communication fails during large projects.

It's not specifically about the building of the tunnel and the waste treatment plant, but it covers a lot of it.
posted by bondcliff at 7:46 AM on February 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Turing's Cathedral, by George Dyson. It's about the development of the IAS machine, one of the early computers. Lots of coverage of the fights between theorists, sales types and practical types who had to build it.
posted by scruss at 8:20 AM on February 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Just finished Moon Lander, about the building of the... moon lander. It's pretty thorough in terms of presenting the engineering and the testing and relations between builder and client. Maybe a bit dry, but still a good read. So, so thorough.

Also good is Angle of Attack, about the engineering of the Saturn V rocket, and the mad dash just to be able to put that all together.

Skunk Works is about the original skunk works at Lockheed. More a memoir, but it goes into some pretty great projects in an engaging way.
posted by Capt. Renault at 10:08 AM on February 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Managing Martians by Donna Shirley works. It’s about the Mars Pathfinder team.
posted by seesom at 10:12 AM on February 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Awful End of Prince William the Silent: The First Assassination of a Head of State with a Handgun has a lot of detail about the invention and development of handguns (and how William the Silent, who led the Netherlands to independence from Spain, became the first head of state to be killed with one).
posted by beagle at 10:17 AM on February 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Defining Vision: How Broadcasters Lured the Government into Inciting a Revolution in Television covers the development of HD Television from its origins in Japan to the digital standard we use today. A little dry but lots of competition, deception, and plain-old hair-pulling bureaucratic madness. (AgentRocket I still need to return this to you)

And not really a book, but is a series of articles and memoirs written by the original Apple Macintosh development team. Lots of amusing Steve Jobs anecdotes in there.

On my reading list is The Wizard War, which covers the British scientific and engineering efforts during WWII to counter the German radio navigation and RADAR sensing capabilities. It was the birth of electronic warfare.
posted by JoeZydeco at 10:39 AM on February 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Skyscraper (about One Worldwide Plaza in NYC) and Twenty First Century Jet (about the Boeing 777)
both by Karl Sabbagh.
posted by JonJacky at 11:04 AM on February 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Inventing the Internet by Janet Abbate is excellent. Better than Where Wizards Stay Up Late (which I also enjoyed) IMO.

I can't recommend Railroaded (which has been mentioned above) enough, although it is more about the politics+corruption than the engineering.
posted by ripley_ at 2:23 PM on February 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm not 100% sure if this counts, but: High Rise: How 1,000 Men and Women Worked Around the Clock for Five Years and Lost $200 Million Building a Skyscraper

It's not "something that has never been built before", but it is an engineering challenge, and it's a fantastic book.
posted by ripley_ at 2:28 PM on February 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for great suggestions! I've read very few of these so it looks like I'll be placing a lot of requests at the library.
posted by condour75 at 2:54 PM on February 14, 2019

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