Happy birthday, Mr. Volta, and other blasts from the past

Feb. 18, 2015

Today is Alessandro Volta’s 270th birthday. In his honor, Google has prepared one of its doodles in honor of the inventor of the battery. And in London, they're celebrating another, if lesser known, engineering hero. Does the name Joseph Bazalgette sound familiar?

Today, according to Uncle Google, who wouldn’t lie about a thing like this, is Alessandro Volta’s 270th birthday. Google is so certain of this that it has prepared one of its doodles in honor of the inventor of the battery. Leave it to The Guardian to whinge about the accuracy of the doodle. But I will give the paper this: The related material at the bottom of the article is worth clicking on. Lots of interesting news on a number of the giants on whose shoulders we’re standing.

Speaking of giants, how many of you are familiar with the name Joseph Bazalgette? Now there was an engineer. He didn’t work in the sexier fields of electricity or chemistry or radiation. No. He’s just the man who rescued London from becoming unlivable because of noxious smells and recurring cholera epidemics in the 19th century. Today, in honor of the 150th anniversary of the opening of a 900-km sewage network in 1865, the Prince of Wales is opening a refurbished Lee Valley Tunnel and Abbey Mills Pumping Station, the heart of the system.

Why is this such a big deal, aside from the fact, more’s the pity, that they don’t build pumping stations like Abbey Mills anymore? Bazalgette got the nod to build the biggest sewer project of the 19th century (the bones of which are still operative) because of “The Great Stink of 1858,”  a smell so awful that Parliament could barely complete its work.

In typical government fashion, Parliament had dawdled on replacing the already-failing earlier sewer systems until the issue got personal, but when they acted, they thought big, and Bazalgette’s proposed solution was the one chosen.

For more on the anniversary, including some eyewitness reports of the original opening by an earlier Prince of Wales, go here.

Oh, and next time you have to look up the word “cholera” in the dictionary because you’ve never heard of it, or you have a glass of potable drinking water, you might thank your local sanitary engineers and the guys down at the municipal waterworks. Their job isn’t sexy and they have to put up with a lot of lame jokes about raw sewage, but they really are the unsung heroes of civilization.

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