From a 1922 issue of The American Magazine:
Don’t Fear to Attempt a Thing Just Because It Looks Big
Nothing is hard if you know what you are doing. A big job is often simply made up of many little jobs; if you know how to multiply one by ten, you can multiply it by one hundred
An interview with Major General George W. Goethals, Builder of the Panama Canal
Reported by Samuel Crowther
“I find,” said General Goethals, “that a great many people are afraid to try to do a big job, of any kind, simply because it is big. They let themselves be frightened by mere size; and this fear keeps them from accomplishing what they are perfectly able to do.
“Size is a problem in itself; but in what are called the great achievements of the world it has not been by any means the outstanding obstacle. It is no harder to multiply one by one hundred than it is to multiply it by ten. One of the reasons why some men of real ability do not go as far as they should is because they are afraid of the multiplication table! They refuse opportunities, without investigation — because ‘that is too big for me.’
“It is scarcely ever the big, spectacular things that really count. In a piece of engineering, the average man thinks that greatness is counted in cubic yards of dirt, stone, or concrete, or in tons of steel. A canal, a dam, a bridge, a breakwater, is supposed to be great if it is big. And likewise a man is supposed to be great if he is rich. Usually if he surmounts difficulties, he will be rich as a matter of course. It is not his riches but what he has done that gives him his place.
“Difficulty, too, is purely a comparative matter. There are those who find the simplest tasks too hard for them; they are the failures. They fail because they will not try. And so we go on up the grades. This man will not try beyond a certain point. The next man will try at a notch higher.
“The best man is the one who regards each difficulty overcome as in the nature of an educational degree. He is willing to try anything! And he finds that his troubles steadily lessen, until eventually he is equipped to do with ease what might have been impossible for him only a few years before. He learns in the only school that is worth anything — experience. He may be able by reason of training to skip a few grades, but he cannot skip the whole
course. For in the end it is the test of experience that counts.
“No system of training will carry an incapable or unfaithful man to success. The world to-day is, above all else, a practical world, and it demands results. What it is looking for is men who can and will do things. And they cannot do things unless they try.
“A subordinate officer once reported to Lord Kitchener a failure to obey orders; and he gave his reasons for this failure. Lord Kitchener said to him: ‘Your reasons for not doing it are the best I ever heard. . . . Now go and do it!’
“That is what the world demands to-day: not men who are fearful of an undertaking, or who advance reasons for not doing it, or who express doubts about its accomplishment; but men who have the courage of their convictions, and will find ways to carry anything through successfully.
“Nothing is ever as hard as it seems to be. There is always a way out and commonly a very simple way. A big task usually reduces to small and fairly simple elements if only it is calmly and fearlessly attacked. And if one attacks with the firm feeling that whatever is in the way must be overcome, then it will be overcome.
“That is the rule which I personally apply to everything. And that is why, in engineering or in anything else, I count only the difficulties overcome in making up the score of real greatness.
“Take engineering. Take the great building feats. The difficulties the builders have are rarely problems of size; they are more apt to be of tools, or of time, or of climate, or of a condition imposed by circumstances. Therefore, what was great last year may not be so this year, because of some improvement in machinery or in process.
“The Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans were great builders; but there is nothing they did which could not easily be done to-day. The so-called Seven Wonders of the ancient world and the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages are, from the engineering standpoint, wonderful only when we consider how crude were the tools they had to work with. They would not be wonders ft they were built to-day.
“Take the pyramids. No man or government would to-day be so vain and wasteful as to erect duplicates of the pyramids. But if the British Government in Egypt felt a need for a dozen more pyramids, they could give the order to any one of several engineering firms, and in a short time have a new lot of pyramids. But the British chose to do what the Egyptians tried to do, but did not know how to do — that is, to throw a great dam across the Nile and regulate the waters for irrigation.
“The Romans built marvelous roads and tremendous walls and great viaducts. They built them solidly because labor and material were all but free. We cannot afford to build such roads as the Romans built. We send our goods across country on steel rails. We build our roads not for posterity but for to-day’s wagons and automobiles. We have no particular use for stone walls excepting for ornamental purposes. When we really need a big wall — as, say, for the side of a canal lock — we find concrete to be cheaper and better than stone. And as to viaducts and aqueducts, the ancients, with all the men and all the skill they could command, could not have done anything approaching the system that brings water to New York.
“The Suez Canal was a great undertaking; but it would not be great to-day. When De Lesseps dug, he had nothing that compared in efficiency with the modern steam shovel. A great deal of that canal was dug out by hand; but today a battery of steam shovels could burrow through those hundred miles of sand so quickly that I think the digging could be finished in months instead of in years. There were no locks to build, no great natural obstacles to overcome, no climate to fight. There was just a big ditch to dig. But it was a great feat of engineering then, because De Lesseps had no tools suitable for digging big ditches.
“Down at Panama, De Lesseps struck a problem where his experience at Suez helped him very little. He had acquired no proficiency in killing mosquitoes! And he had no tools big enough to take out the dirt faster than it fell in.
“Our big fight at Panama was not against the dirt. We conquered that with the steam shovel. In the beginning, a bucket taking five cubic yards of earth was supposed to be big. Toward the end, we had buckets holding fifteen cubic yards and did not think much about them. One bite of earth taken by a fifteen-yard bucket would fill an ordinary room.
“But digging was not the big thing that had to be done at Panama. Machines could do that. The first big thing was to kill the mosquitoes and clean up the place generally so that ‘men could work; and this Doctor Gorgas did most ably. The second big thing was to get the men to work—to manage fifty thousand men and many thousand women and children and, on the side, to handle an unfriendly civil government.
“My chief interest at Panama was not in the engineering but in the men. I felt that the canal would be built if the men could be managed. We managed the men and the canal was built. Most people will always think of the Panama Canal as great because so many million yards of earth were taken out. But we could take a similar amount of dirt out of Long Island without giving the job more than a passing thought.
“The greatness of the canal was in the forming of a good-sized principality solely devoted to fighting the jungle, the Culebra Slide, and the Chagres River — and having them finish the fight on time. If we had taken fifty years to dig the ditch I should not be proud of the work. My engineering textbook down there was the calendar. That gave all the necessary directions.
“It is time, place, and circumstance that fix the quality of engineering achievement. The hardest task I ever had, for instance, was not the canal, or anything that anyone knows about. It was a bridge that I built over the Spokane River, in 1882, when I was a second lieutenant in the Engineering Corps.
“A freshet had washed out a bridge that gave the only easy access to Fort Spokane. A new one had to be put up at once. The War Department — Washington was then a territory and army engineers built the bridges in the territories — rushed me there with orders to build a new bridge that freshets could not destroy, and to build it in a hurry.
“The bridge I was ordered to put up was only a wooden truss bridge with a one-hundred-and-twenty-foot span. There was nothing novel in that; many such had been built. Yet, so far as I am concerned, everything since has been easy, compared with that job. For I never had built a bridge, and I did not know much about bridge building.
“That was part of my trouble. In addition, the bridge was far away from the sources of supply of everything excepting wood, and I was expected to do my work in a hurry. It might not have been hard for an experienced bridge engineer. He would have known exactly what to do. I did not; I had to find out as we went along. I read books all night and gave orders all day. However, we built the bridge — and on time. Those were the orders and they were followed.
“Nothing is hard if you know what you are doing. What makes my first bridge so stick out in my memory is that I did not know in advance what I was going to do. The man who is entitled to the most credit is the man who does something, no matter how crudely, for the first time. Those who come after him are directors or administrators — not originators.
“Take what I consider to be the five greatest engineering exploits of all time: the New York water supply, the New Haven and New York Central electrifications, the first New York subways, the Pennsylvania Railroad Hudson tunnels, and the Panama Canal. They are each great because the engineers had very little, if anything, in the way of precedent to go on.
“Look at the New York water supply. New York City is the largest city in the world. It is also the most compact city in the world and the greatest portion of its population is contained in the narrow strip known as Manhattan Island and in Brooklyn on the shore of Long Island. It is harder to get drinking water into New York than into any other large city anywhere; and the people require more water per inhabitant than do the people of any other city.
“More people are crowded into a small space in New York than would have been thought possible even fifty years ago. Most cities spread out as they grow. New York has spread — but has spread more up into the air than out into the country. Without the highest development of modern engineering facilities New York could not exist as the largest city in the world. The ancients could not even have conceived of such a city. A hundred years ago we could not have conceived of it. And naturally the growth of this city brought up engineering problems without precedent.
“No problem has been greater than that of getting water — pure, clean, uncontaminated water — in sufficient quantity. The city grew faster than the water supply. Space was too valuable to give up to the numerous reservoirs that would have been required under the old plan of piping water into a city, pumping it to a reservoir, and letting it flow from the reservoir to the mains. Many will recall that the site of the public library at Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue was once occupied by a reservoir. The system known as the Croton was installed. It was a big thing and water was brought in from miles out; but the whole available supply from this source was scarcely sufficient for the needs of the city by the time it was finished. The city requires about 300,000,000 gallons of water a day. Therefore, to meet the needs of any conceivable population, the authorities developed what is known as the “Schoharie” project. They determined to provide a supply of half a billion gallons a day.
“Carrying out this intention involved not only the making of great dams to hold the water in the mountains, but also what is known as the Catskill Aqueduct to bring the water from the mountains to the city.
“There is nothing anywhere in the world like this aqueduct. It crosses not only hills and valleys but dives under the Hudson River at Storm King, more than a thousand feet below the bottom of the river, and comes down into New York and distributes the water far below the deepest foundation of any building. The engineers ran into nearly every difficulty that had ever been known, and many that were unknown, and had to devise methods of construction accordingly.
“But neither the size nor the difficulties frightened them. They met every problem, and they met them so ably, and with so little noise that comparatively few people know that New York has such a world wonder. Every bit of it within the city is out of sight. It had to be. There was no space to put anything on the surface, and very little space in the air. The only free territory was far below the surface.
“That supply system and the Panama Canal are the largest of all engineering undertakings; and these are great, not simply on account of their size, but on account of the obstacles overcome.
“The builders of the Pennsylvania tunnels under the Hudson River had great problems because they had to go through treacherous ground. If you build a tunnel through solid rock, you know at least what you are doing and time is the largest element you have to consider. But the bed of the Hudson was partly rock and partly soft earth — which require very different kinds of treatment.
“In addition, the tunnel had to be near enough to the surface so that the grades would not be too steep for trains. A very deep tunnel would have made it impossible to locate the Pennsylvania Terminal on Manhattan Island, unless the passengers reached the deep level by elevators; and this would have been both expensive and inconvenient. The engineers had to drive the tunnel with reference to all these factors, instead of being able to select the easiest place. That they drove it successfully is a great tribute to their engineering skill.
“The first subways had a somewhat similar problem. They had to be near the surface. The crowds that use the New York subways could not be handled at a deep level by elevators or escalators. But if the shafts were cut near the surface, there was danger of the collapse of the immense buildings that line the very narrow streets of many miles of the subway. There was nothing very hard about the problem up-town where the streets are broader. The critical portion was down-town where the streets are narrower and the buildings tall.
“Other cities, notably London and Paris, had built subways; but they had neither such large crowds to provide for, nor such large buildings to avoid; and they could run their tunnels far under the surface. The New York men in most places had to chisel out a big channel, working from the surface. They had not only to protect the buildings while working, but also to provide many of these buildings with new foundations. And at the same time they had to keep street traffic going. No one ever had done anything like that; it never had been necessary. The engineers had to work almost by rule of thumb — but they succeeded.
“The New York Central tracks from Harmon down to the city are among the busiest tracks in the world. To provide a complete electrification, without delaying traffic and without building a new road bed, was a problem such as no engineer had ever before had to face. If it had been a new railway there would have been very little to bother about. It would simply have been a case of putting the right stuff in. But here they had not only to electrify but also to keep the traffic going. They could not tie up trains for even half a day. That they succeeded shows that they were not frightened by the apparently impossible.
“None of these great tasks, however, would be especially notable if done to-day. Because now we know how they were done; and the processes, with new adaptations, can be repeated. A new subway in New York no longer causes much comment. The main question is money. We could build another Panama Canal if we wanted to, and without running into any extraordinary amount of trouble. We should know what machinery was required and we should more or less know how to handle the people. We have all these feats added to our store of knowledge, we have experience behind us, and it is only the man who does not profit by experience, but looks at mere size, who would be frightened by a commission to undertake any similar project to-day.
“These engineers could have held that any of the tasks they were put to were ‘impossible.’ It is easy to decide that one cannot do a thing. But it is almost as easy to decide that one not only can but must do it — that the doing is a high duty. And then the thing, be it big or little, gets done. Seeing a duty and doing it carry one further, I think, than any of the more brilliant qualities.”
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Original page image from The American Magazine (final image a composite of two partial pages), click to enlarge: