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Let the Bullets Fly

——A Miracle of the Construction of Thames Tunnel

“How would you missed it? Let the bullets fly for a bit.”

—— ——Let the Bullets Fly(2010)

Of what is signficant in one’s own existence one is hardly aware, and it certainly should not bother the other fellow. What does a fish know about the water in which he swim all his life?
The bitter and the sweet come from the outside, the hard from within, from one’s own efforts. For the most part I do the thing which my own nature drives me to do. It is embarrassing to earn so much respect and love for it. Arrows of hate have been shot at me too; but they never hit me, because somehow they belonged to another world, with which I have no connection whatsoever.
I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity.

——Albert Einstein, Self-Portrait (1951)

“I can built it better, if I can try it again.”

——Brunel, a civil engineer, 1843

In 19th century, the London River was just like today’s busy road in the modern city. At any time, more than 3,000 large merchant ships and hundreds of boats were sailing here. The Thames was not only the economic artery, but also the jam area of London. Even if two bridges had been built on the Thames, and some ferries sailed in the river, businessmen still complained that the spending on the freight transport through the Thames was almost equal to the cost of shipping from the United States to the UK. Therefore, more channels were needed to be built in this city. However, the construction of the bridges would hinder the water traffic and the operation of the London wharfs. In addition, the height of the bridge would not allow the sail through. In London, the Thames was also the outfall with various diseases breeding in the water at that time. Now that the channel couldn’t be built on the water, it only could be built from underwater.

To meet the requirement of construction, Brunel, an engineer of the United States and France, put forward two unprecedented engineering techniques: first, building the shaft with drop shaft sinking method, which means creating a cylinder made from cast iron wrapped in brick, weighing about 1,000 tons. Miners swim down to the bottom of the cylinder, and dig from the inside, so that the cylinder will slowly sink by relying on their own weight. Second, shield tunneling. These two technologies are still in use today.

Innovation means exploration and costs. Since the construction began in 1825, there have been some accidents, including five floods, a fire disaster, and the methane gas leaking (it may be caused by the Thames water leakage), resulting in ten deaths (it was said that the first victim fell into the shaft after drinking at night [3]). Brunel said that they have to fight against water, fire, soil, and gas. Construction progress was far behind schedule for the lack of funds with the project shutted down for 7 years and time for completion delaying for 15 years.

This project cost £ 614,000, which goes beyond the budget, known as a financial disaster. When the project was completed in 1843, the tunnel was not open to the traffic. The fund was not enough to build connecting section from the tunnel to the land, so the builders had no choice but to take a staircase as a sidewalk in the shaft. During the long construction period, the project was ironically called as "the great bore" by The Times, and even was predicted as "a bubble to burst" by publications.

As the first tunnel under the river (also the first one built soft soil foundation), Thames River tunnel is known as the greatest miracle [4] as well as one of the eight wonders of the world. Half of the inhabitants in London are streaming to the tunnel to get experiences that the river flew and the ship went over the tunnel. Besides, the tunnel also attracted travelers from all over the world. Artists also got inspiration from the tunnel to create many art works. A variety of commemorative coins with design patterns and engineering information had been awarded to the builders, and museums also was built to commemorate the project.

In 1870, the tunnel allowed steam trains to pass, and now it become the oldest part of the London subway. In addition, the cultural relics of the project are in a travelling show in the museums around the world. In London, the Transport Museum treated the construction of the Thames River tunnel as a grand creation in the traffic history. Not far from the museum is the Imperial College London whose civil engineering majors was rated as the best one in the world by the United States QS institutions in 2015. Besides, many British Universities are still attracting more than 50% international students, whose tuition fees fund the researches, and consumption stimulates the local economy. After the Thames River tunnel was completed, the shield method and the open caisson method were soon improved. And they were well known and widely applied in the world for the economic and efficiency advantages.

In 1843, the British Queen Victoria visited the tunnel by barge. Without an advance notice, Brunel missed the meeting with the Queen [3]. But finally, Victoria knighted Brunel for his world-changing contribution to engineering. [7].

The Thames tunnel shield model (photographer [5])

The title of a publication says "The Tunnel, a Bubble to Burst".  In this painting, Bruner was standing on the ladder with open arms, looking at that leak, and he said that "my hypothesis doesn't work, they went to the hell" [3]

A variety of commemorative coins were issued to commemorate the project.

The tunnel is now used as a subway channel, and sometimes it acts as a scenic spot for visitors. (photographer [6])

The original shaft of Thames Tunnel and its drainage room are the parts of the Brunel Museum.

Sources of Information

[1] The Hopeless Bullet: On Let the Bullets Fly. Luo, Xiaoming, Frontiers of Literary Studies in China, 7, 512-517 (2013), DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.3868/s010-002-013-0030-2

[2] Einstein, Albert. Out of My Later Years. London: Thames and Hudson, (1950).

[3] Exhibits and information of the Brunel Museum. Web: www.brunel-museum.org.uk/

[4] Dobraszczyk, Paul. "The Thames Tunnel." Victorian Review 39, no. 1 (2013): 22-25.

[5] By Dunks58 at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Oxyman using CommonsHelper., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8375450

[6]Lars Plougmann, United States - Thames Tunnel walk, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11606054

[7]Encyclopedia: it was extracted from http://baike.so.com/doc/7574920-7849014.html on Dec. 11th, 2016.

[8]360 Encyclopedia: it was extracted from http://baike.so.com/doc/1232504-1303643.html?from=119598&sid=1303643&redirect=search on Dec. 11th, 2016.

  • Next:Super "Operator" for the Placement of the Immersed Tunnel Elements (2017-09-13)

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