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Sunday, July 29, 2007

One of the all-time achievements for engineering: Brunelleschi’s Dome

I just completed a wonderful book by Ross King about Brunelleschi’s Dome -- an engineering marvel that dominates the skyline of Florence, Italy. The dome crowns the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the foundation of which began in 1296. It took 140 years for the church to be considered complete enough to be consecrated. The 140 foot diameter of the dome exceeds that of Saint Paul’s in London and Saint Peter’s in Rome. It was masterminded by Filippo Brunelleschi who dared to span it without a centering arch for support. He also came up with ingenious devices to lift some seventy million pounds of rock hundreds of feet up to their final resting places. For pictures and detail on Brunelleschi’s feat, see this site by Maria Patricia Farfan of McGill University.

Aside from the lasting fame he earned from the marvelous dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, Filippo should be venerated for something much more important for all inventive engineers and scientists – being the holder of the world’s first patent issued in 1421. Ironically it was for an invention that did not work out – an ungainly vessel dubbed Il Badalone – “The Monster.” It failed miserably at carrying the marble from Carrara needed for the final stages of construction to provide a beautiful façade. However, the advent of patent law provided protection against the rampant plagiarism of engineering innovations. It should be considered one of the milestones that separate the Middle Ages* from Renaissance times.

“Many are ready, when listening to the inventor, to belittle and deny his achievements…but after some months…they use the inventor’s…design…[and]…boldly call themselves the inventors of the things they first condemned…”
-- Filippo Brunelleschi

*(I went to the Monty Python play Spamalot today. One of the characters, King Arthur perhaps, ponders how anyone would have known it to be the Middle Ages. The play poses many imponderables of this sort as well as non-stop implausible and improbable happenings – all in great fun. I give it two thumbs up, but as a native son of Hormel’s hometown of Austin, Minnesota, I must confess to liking anything concocted of Spam (excepting email).)


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