Megaprojects, worldwide - six excursions into economic history


    Half-a-dozen megaprojects all over the world are summarized here.* They are: (1) The Pyramids (over 4,000 years ago), (2) The Great Wall of China (over a million workers died building it), (3) The Roman Aqueducts (supplying Rome with 300 million gallons of water a day), (4) The Chinese Armada (800 ships which circumvented the globe in 1421), (5) The Suez Canal (on which 1.5 million people worked) and (6) The Apollo Mission to put a man on the moon (which cost between 170 and 220 billion dollars).





1) The Pyramids   The visionaries – the Pharaohs – and their priests.

    The age of the pyramids reached its zenith at Giza in 2575-2150 B.C. The Great Pyramid of Giza, the largest in Egypt, is shown on far right. It has a base of over 52,600 square meters and is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World to survive to this day. In the center is the Pyramid of Khafre and on the left the Pyramid of Menkaure. The three small pyramids in the foreground are subsidiary to the Pyramid of Menkaure. 







2) The Great Wall of China   First visionary: Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259 – 210 B.C.)

    A major section of the Great Wall was built between 220–206 B.C. by the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, to prevent intrusions from the North. Estimates have been made that over 1 million workers died building the wall. It was extended during the Ming Dynasty after 1449 to keep out Manchurian and Mongolian tribes. It stretches for 8,852 km (5,500 miles), of which 6260 km (3,890 miles) are actual wall, the remainder natural barriers.






3) The Roman Aqueducts  First visionary – unknown Roman engineer

    The Roman aqueducts were extremely sophisticated and remarkably long constructions. The Zaghousan Aqueduct, the second longest one (92.5 km, 57.5 miles), was built to supply Carthage (Tunisia) in the 2nd century. They were built to extremely fine tolerances. As an example, the gradient of the Pont du Gard aqueduct is only 34 cm per km (3.4:10,000). It descends only 17 m over a length of 50 km (31 miles).

    The challenge to constructing an aqueduct is the gradient. It will either clog up or overflow if the gradient is not correct. Powered entirely by gravity, the Pont du Gard shown above could move up to 20,000 cubic meters (almost 6 million gallons) a day. The combined aqueducts of the city of Rome supplied around 1 million cubic meters (300 million gallons) a day.






4) The Chinese Armada   Visionary – Emperor Zhu Di (1360 – 1424 AD)

    On March 8th, 1421 a Chinese armada of trade and exploration set sail. It was made up of 800 ships. There were 100 capital ships, each 480 ft. long and 180 ft. wide, carrying more than 2,000 tons of cargo. With them were merchant junks, 90 ft. long and 30 ft. wide, and squadrons of fast, maneuverable warships. The armada could travel over 4,500 miles in three months without making landfall for food or water. The armada was centuries ahead of Europe in every conceivable respect, communication, navigation, cargo capacity, damage control, range, etc.

    In 1421 Venice had the leading fleet in the Western world, 300 galleys rowed by oarsmen. The largest of these was 150 ft. long, 20 ft. wide, and could carry 50 tons of cargo at best. The galleys had archers. The Chinese ships had brass and iron cannons, mortars, and exploding shells.

    Emperor Zhu Di´s loyal eunuch admirals may circumvented the globe a century before Magellan, reached America seventy years before Columbus, and set foot in Australia three hundred and fifty years before Cook. For more about this disputed epic journey, see Gavin Menzies´s work, 1421, The Year China Discovered the World, Bantam Books 2002 or visit the website

   The technological leadership of China over Europe at that time is unquestioned, and China certainly had the capablity to make that voyage. In contrast, the evidence for the fleet's voyage is subject to hefty dispute. A leading naysayer is history professor Robert Finlay, "How Not to (Re)Write History," Journal of World History, June 2004, pp. 229-242. The link Paleobabble gives two contrasting paragraphs from the Menzies book and the Finlay review.   






5) The Suez Canal  First successful visionary Ferdinand Marie, Vicomte de Lesseps (1805 – 1894)  

    The Suez Canal, the canal of the Pharaohs, is believed to have been worked on by Sensuret II (1897 BC – 1878 BC) and Ramesses II (1279 BC – 1213 BC).

    The modern effort by the Suez Canal Company began in 1859 on the shore of the future Port Said. The canal opened to shipping the end of 1869.  Over 30,000 people were working on the canal at any given time (including slave labor from Egypt for a certain period, although slaves had been banned throughout Europe by 1830).  More than 1.5 million people were employed, of whom thousands died.


    The above projects were all planned and scheduled by tacticians using quill and papyrus, pencil and paper. Instructions were verbal; literacy among laborers was rare. The 19th century did see literacy become far more widespread and by the beginning of the 20th century it was extending to the lowest levels of society in most countries. However the dawn of modern tactical tools for project management did not come until the middle of the 20th century. 

    The impetus was the Polaris missile, intended for the then new nuclear submarines of the U.S. Polaris was to have a range of 1,000 miles. To manage this project, large and complex by any normal standards, a Program Review and Evaluation Technique (PERT) was developed in 1957/58 by Bill Pocock of Booz Allen Hamilton and Gordon Perhson of the U.S. Navy Special Projects. Simultaneously the Critical Path Method (CPM) was developed by M.R. Walker of Dupont and J.E. Kelly of Remington Rand for use on a UNIVAC-I mainframe.

    Both these methods came into use and were refined by various teams involved in the Apollo Program to land a man on the moon.




6) The Apollo Program   Visionaries – J.F. Kennedy (1917 – 1963) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1908 – 1973)

    The U.S. made an incredibly expensive effort in the 1960s by to land a man on the moon, the Apollo Program. Depending on what exactly one includes in the program, the cost of landing men on the moon may be estimated (in 2010 dollars) at between 170 and 220 billion dollars. At its peak, it involved about 409,000 employees. Some 34,000 were at NASA and another 375,000 worked for various industrial companies, and also for universities.

    Of course this combined labor force is still pretty small compared to the ones for the Great Wall of China, on the work of which perhaps a million laborers died (!), or even the Suez Canal, which had a million and a half laborers.  However the Apollo workers had better machines, and better planning and scheduling tools too.

    This gigantic effort reflected the politics of the day. The horrors of World War II with its 60 million dead, half Soviets (thanks to Stalin) had faded, but were not forgotten. The war had introduced the ballistic missile (the V-2 rocket) and the atomic bomb. In Hiroshima the bomb incinerated 80,000 people, in Nagasaki some 40,000, with roughly equal numbers in both cities dying, some many years later, from radiation.

    The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Admiral of the Pacific fleet had been unanimously opposed to using this monstrous weapon. The Japanese were, after all, trying to surrender anyway. A rather silly, in fact absurd, argument was (still is?) taught in U.S. public schools. The bombs needed to be dropped because a fanatical "home defense" would otherwise have led to one million U.S. troops being killed in an invasion. Nonsense.

    Why on earth invade? Japan had run out of oil, and the Allies were sitting on top of the world´s oil fields.  No oil in an oil-based economy means your machine-based agriculture dwindles and dies. The population can no longer be fed.  All the U.S. had to do was sit back and watch them starve. Weakened by malnutrition, the population would have been decimated by cholera, typhus, yellow fever and other diseases.  Awareness of this grim scenario is precisely why the Japanese were desperately trying to negotiate surrender before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

    President Harry S. Truman (1884 – 1972), who overruled his generals, is commonly viewed – not, of course, in the U.S. -- as another member of that club in World War II which enjoyed such unfortunate popularity, viz. the club of unconscionable, unspeakable war criminals. Be that as it may, in the 1950s, the two superpowers that had emerged as the victors, the United States and the Soviet Union, were increasingly confronting one another on the ideological battlefield of capitalism versus communism.

    The development of the hydrogen bomb by both sides exacerbated the tension. Twice the superpowers came to the very brink of nuclear war. The first time was the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 during the Kennedy administration. The second, even more dangerous, although less widely known, was towards the end of 1983 during the Regan administration.

    In 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, thereby beginning the Space Age. Sputnik was a real shock to the U.S. Soviet rockets with nuclear warheads could reach the U.S. in 30 minutes in a surprise attack!

    The U.S. started a massive catch-up effort, developing and deploying huge numbers of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The brinkmanship (brink of insanity) strategy was appropriately named MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction. During this period the U.S. also created the civilian space agency NASA.

    In the early 1960s President John F. Kennedy, smarting over the Soviet Sputnik successes, was looking for a way to send a clear message to the world proving U.S.  leadership. Various ideas were considered, including massive irrigation projects to benefit the Third World. However these projects seemed unlikely to have the spectacular propaganda effect desired.

    In 1963, Kennedy asked Vice President Johnson to look into landing a man on the moon. Johnson concluded that the scientific benefits were limited. However the propaganda effects could hardly be better. Johnson therefore put together a persuasive case for a moon mission, enlisting the help of NASA scientists. Kennedy and Johnson sold the moon mission to the U.S. public with a “carrot and stick” message. The carrot was the scientific payoff; one hoped for medical breakthroughs. The stick was the Soviet threat. When Johnson became President in 1963 after Kennedy’s assassination, he continued to support the mission.

    Apollo 1A was launched 1966 for a suborbital test and just three years later Apollo 11 made history on July 20th, 1969 as Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. This success was followed by those of Apollo 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17 – which last was also the landing on the moon by an astronaut, December, 1972. In all, twelve American astronauts have walked on the moon.





    The modern tools for project management are briefly discussed on the subpage CPM/PERT/SPIDER.


* The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 14th ed. was the principal source for the articles on the six different projects, updated (with fact checking and images) at Wikipedia. The 14th edition of 20+ volumes is the last one in standard format. It was succeeded by the 15th edition (1974 - 1994) that was re-organized into a Micropaedia (short articles of ca. 750 words), a Macropaedia and a Propaedia.

    The current edition consists of some 32 volumes. For many non-scientific articles the 11th edition is to be preferred, as it set standards of scholarship and writing that have hardly been surpassed. Among the few people to have read the entire encyclopedia are Bernard Shaw (1856 - 1950), 9th ed. and C.S. Forester (1899 - 1966) (author of the Horatio Hornblower series), 11th ed.


Image © citations:

    1 All Giza Pyramids, Ricardo Liberato, 14.06.2006, Platonides/Flickr 2008, Creative Commons Attribution License (= CCAL) 2.0

    2 Great Wall of China near Jinshanling, Jakub Halun, 29.05.2009 GNU CCAL 3.0

    3 Pont du Gard Aqueduct, Bernardbill 5, G25.21.2004 GFDLGNU-CCAL 3.0

    4 Chinese Junk Engraving 1848, PD-Art photograph, PHG en.wikipedia, 24.02.2008

    5 USS Bainbridge (world´s first, and smallest ever, nuclear powered frigate, commissioned 1962, crossing the Suez Canal (1990s), CW02 A.A. Alleyne,  Collection U.S. Naval Historical Center, uploaded to Wikipedia 13.11.2005

    6 Apollo 11 with Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin Aldrin Jr. launching from Kennedy Space Center 16 July 1969, NASA- PD, photo ID  KSC-69PC-442

    7 Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on moon (Neil Armstrong was first, descending 15 minutes before him.) NASA-PD



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