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Understanding the World's Greatest Structures

Take a unique tour of our world's most remarkable and enduring structural masterpieces and learn why these architectural wonders stand the test of time.
Understanding the World's Greatest Structures is rated 4.9 out of 5 by 382.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Real Instructor My wife and I just finished this course. Do not watch this as one of your first Great Courses. After watching this one your expectations will be too greatly raised. You would probably refer to most of the people doing one of the Great Courses as lecturers or presenters, but PhD Ressler is a teacher/instructor. His enthusiasm for his subject combined with his models and graphics brings about involvement you will not find in many of the other courses. I would highly recommend this course to anyone who has an interest in history or ancient technology.
Date published: 2023-08-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Slow early on, but very good overall My background is in art/architectural history and humanities, so I was intrigued when I heard about this course because I wanted to learn more about the physics and structural systems side of buildings that I often study and teach about in my own courses. With that said, after watching the first three episodes or so, I was about to give up. Why? There are quite a few mathematical equations and physics concepts that the course assumes the audience is somewhat familiar with. The professor does try to recap some of these concepts quickly, but they really merit more study if you really want to understand them. I ended up mentally tuning out briefly while some of these equations were discussed because I simply did not have the knowledge to understand them. In any case, I stuck with it through the first few lectures and was rewarded with a fascinating examination of the structural side of some some of the greatest monuments in the human history. I was already well familiar with the historical contexts of buildings such as the pyramids, the Pantheon, and medieveal cathedrals, but it was quite rewarding to learn in-depth about the engineering side of these structures, both ancient and modern alike. While I am used to considering monuments of the past mostly within their historical and aesthetic contexts, this series gave me quite a different perspective from which to consider them. I found it particularly interesting to hear about the engineering history of bridges, which was an area of emphasis in this course. Within the field of art history, bridges aren't normally considered preeminent objects of study, but in this course, bridges were were of the "stars of the show". The professor's personality and clarity of discussion was excellent for the treatment of this subject matter. His hands-on models were quite helpful, as were the computer graphics/diagrams that he used in his explanations. As a whole, this was a very good course. I do think that someone with a higher level of physics knowledge would be able to enter this course and understand more early on, and probably wouldn't be slowed down by the dryness of some of the math in the first few lectures. Nevertheless, for people who are generally interested in engineering and the history of ideas, this is a course well worth watching.
Date published: 2023-06-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great way to empirically understand I am a Licensed Professional Engineer and a Certified Bridge Inspector. I particularly enjoyed the clear simplification of his models and descriptions of structures. I wish my college professors could have clearly presented the structural topics as this course did.
Date published: 2023-05-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful I have watched two of Prof. Ressler's courses, and I am finally getting around to posting a review. He is far and away one of the best teachers at the Great Courses. This course is fascinating and thorough, yet accessible. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2023-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wow! Amazing It’s obvious that the professor had thoroughly studied the structures covered in the course. The amount of information on each was amazing. His delivery approach and the use of models made it easy to grasp how each structure works. It didn’t require prior knowledge of structures to appreciate and understand the information presented.
Date published: 2023-02-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Is this the best series by the Great Courses? It might be. Ressler does an incredible job of taking very difficult material and making it very comprehensible. His little models are perfect at illustrating the points he's trying to make. I watched this with a group, and there were some who thought the early lectures were a tad dry... but it became very apparent what Ressler was aiming for in the middle of the course when all these concepts came back into the lectures in a big way. I understand why Ressler has such a cult following at TGC. It is the best job I've ever seen of taking difficult, technical material and communicating it to the masses without significantly watering down the content.
Date published: 2023-02-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another triumph of clear explanations and ... SHOWing us how it works with models. The choice of great structures includes a wide variety, including many places you may have visited. The models that the prof uses are so much fun! Make no mistake, it is very sound educationally, but - fun. This class has more math than his other classes, but don't panic, you mathphobes: he does a good step-by-step through it, it's always necessary, not showing-off and you can always fast-forward to the next point where he switches back to English. You don't have to be interested in engineering to love this class. And you will start noticing so much more of your world...
Date published: 2023-02-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Late to the Party There have been a few occasions when I experienced a course that I completed because I felt I simply owed it to the professor to do so, rather than savoring the actual learning experience. Not so here. This course is not the first of Dr. Ressler's that I have purchased, but it was the first one I viewed. This is a tour de force; it is astounding. I have no real academic engineering knowledge, and what little I do know is anecdotal. However, this course, already over a decade old (age does not really matter here) reveals a wealth of virtues: (1) Dr. Ressler is an exceptional and engaging presenter, whom you might invite over for a beer; (2) the level of his lectures is totally accessible, and the quality of his explanations of structural designs and load factors is top-notch; (3) his vast collection of photos and videos is stunning; and (4) his numerous working models are at once simple and highly instructive. While I am "late to the party" in discovering Dr. Ressler's gifts, I happily look forward to experiencing his other courses that will surely be no less a delight than this one. Just look at these reviews. The very few outliers were surely watching something else.
Date published: 2023-01-16
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Experience the engineering genius that makes works such as the Giza pyramids, Brunelleschi's dome, and the Brooklyn Bridge possible with Understanding the World's Greatest Structures: Science and Innovation from Antiquity to Modernity. Delivered by award-winning Professor Stephen Ressler, these 24 lectures take you on a richly illustrated tour that deftly blends history and science to create an unforgettable survey of our world's most remarkable structural masterpieces. This course is a marvelous learning experience that takes you around the world and reveals the stories behind the most famous bridges, churches, skyscrapers, towers, and other structures from thousands of years of history.


Stephen Ressler

In over two decades as a teacher, I've never experienced anything quite like commitment of The Great Courses to rigor in the course development process and uncompromising production quality in the studio.


United States Military Academy, West Point

Stephen Ressler is a Professor Emeritus from the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he taught for 21 years. He holds an MS and PhD in Civil Engineering from Lehigh University and is a registered professional engineer in Virginia. He served in a variety of military engineering assignments in the United States, Europe, and Central Asia. He has focused his scholarly and professional work on engineering education and has won numerous national awards for engineering education and service.

By This Professor

Understanding the World's Greatest Structures
Everyday Engineering: Understanding the Marvels of Daily Life
Do-It-Yourself Engineering
Understanding Greek and Roman Technology
Epic Engineering Failures and the Lessons They Teach
Understanding the World's Greatest Structures


Learning to See and Understand Structure

01: Learning to See and Understand Structure

How are ideas for buildings, bridges, and towers transformed from sketches to concrete reality? What are the three essential qualities that make a structure great? What's the difference between seeing a structure and actually understanding it? Discover the answers to these and other questions in this introductory lecture.

34 min
The Science of Structure—Forces in Balance

02: The Science of Structure—Forces in Balance

Explore how two types of external forces—loads (forces applied to structures) and reactions (forces developed at supports, in response to applied loads)—act on structures such as Kansas City's Chouteau Bridge. Also, learn how these forces are related to the most important concept in engineering mechanics: equilibrium.

33 min
Internal Forces, Stress, and Strength

03: Internal Forces, Stress, and Strength

Use the Simple Tension Test (pulling on a structural element until it reaches the breaking point) as a gateway to understanding the concepts of internal force, stress, and strength. Then, see these concepts at work in structures such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Athens' Olympic Velodrome.

32 min
From Wood to Steel—Properties of Materials

04: From Wood to Steel—Properties of Materials

Materials profoundly influence the form, function, and structure of great buildings, bridges, and towers. Using steel (which is superior in terms of strength, ductility, and stiffness) as a benchmark, compare the structural properties of wood, masonry, concrete, and iron—and see them at work in thousands of years' worth of structures.

31 min
Building Up—Columns and Buckling

05: Building Up—Columns and Buckling

One of the most potent human aspirations supported by engineering is to build up. Learn how this has been done from antiquity to the present with columns—structural members that carry load primarily in compression. You'll also learn about buckling: the often catastrophic stability failure that occurs in columns with certain geometric characteristics.

32 min
Building Across—Beams and Bending

06: Building Across—Beams and Bending

Beams, combining tension and compression, are central to the second aspiration supported by engineering: building across long distances. As you survey beams from the primitive lintel over the Lion Gate at Mycenae to Norway's Raftsundet Bridge, you'll investigate scientific developments and transform your understanding of what makes this structural element possible.

32 min
Trusses—The Power of the Triangle

07: Trusses—The Power of the Triangle

Trusses, the subject of this fascinating lecture, are rigid frameworks composed of structural members connected at joints and arranged into networks of triangles. Learn how they work to stabilize and support a range of structural wonders, including the Brooklyn Bridge and—most famously—the Eiffel Tower.

32 min
Cables and Arches—The Power of the Parabola

08: Cables and Arches—The Power of the Parabola

In this lecture, Professor Ressler introduces you to two final structural elements: cables and arches. The Saint Louis Gateway Arch and the cables of the Golden Gate Bridge are just two examples of breathtaking structural features that also have extensive, occasionally surprising, parallels.

31 min
Loads and Structural Systems

09: Loads and Structural Systems

Structures are heavily influenced by the loads they're designed to carry. First, take a closer look at the most important loads structures must resist, including traffic loads and earthquake loads. Then, using the historic iron building at Watervliet Arsenal in New York, analyze how loads are actually transmitted through structural systems along load paths.

31 min
Egypt and Greece—Pyramids to the Parthenon

10: Egypt and Greece—Pyramids to the Parthenon

Embark on your tour of different types of structures from around the world and across time. Your first stop: ancient Egypt, and the surprisingly complex engineering of pyramids, including the Great and Red pyramids. Your second stop: ancient Greece, where you visit the domed Treasury of Atreus and break down the structural system of the Parthenon.

31 min
The Glory of Rome in Arches and Vaults

11: The Glory of Rome in Arches and Vaults

Learn why the arch is the principal structural feature of ancient Rome. Your detailed case studies range from simple bridges such as the Pont St. Martin and triumphal arches such as the Arch of Titus to massive aqueducts like the Pont du Gard and majestic public spaces like the Baths of Caracalla.

33 min
The Rise and Fall of the Gothic Cathedral

12: The Rise and Fall of the Gothic Cathedral

Gothic cathedrals are lasting testaments to the power of a series of sweeping architectural developments in medieval Europe. After examining the roots of Gothic cathedrals in their Romanesque predecessors, focus on several structural innovations—including flying buttresses and pointed arches—at work in places such as France's Chartres Cathedral.

33 min
Three Great Domes—Rome to the Renaissance

13: Three Great Domes—Rome to the Renaissance

Trace the dome's evolution from the 1st century A.D. to the Renaissance. It's a journey reflected in the increasingly sophisticated domes of three great structures: the ancient Roman Pantheon, the Byzantine-era basilica of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and the Renaissance-era dome over the Florence cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.

34 min
How Iron and Science Transformed Arch Bridges

14: How Iron and Science Transformed Arch Bridges

Examine the development of arched bridges during and after the Industrial Revolution. See how the revolutionary Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale paved the way for the development of science-based engineering. Also, see how science contributed to increasingly sophisticated modern bridges such as Spain's Campo Volantin Bridge.

29 min
Suspension Bridges—The Battle of the Cable

15: Suspension Bridges—The Battle of the Cable

After learning the science behind suspension bridges, begin your two-lecture look at these structural marvels. Here, relive the "Battle of the Cable," in which 19th-century engineers struggled over whether to build suspension cables from iron chains (as in England's Menai Strait Bridge) or steel wire (as in the Brooklyn Bridge).

33 min
Suspension Bridges—The Challenge of Wind

16: Suspension Bridges—The Challenge of Wind

In July 1940, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge dramatically collapsed in a steady 42-mph wind. In this concluding lecture on suspension bridges, focus on how the Brooklyn Bridge, the Severn Bridge, and other bridges were designed to combat the second great challenge of these record-breaking bridges: their vulnerability to wind-induced vibrations.

31 min
Great Cantilever Bridges—Tragedy and Triumph

17: Great Cantilever Bridges—Tragedy and Triumph

Professor Ressler shows how structural catastrophes produced two bridges that provide a wonderful opportunity to see and understand structure: Scotland's Firth of Forth Bridge and Canada's second Quebec Bridge. You'll also gain insights into the human element of engineering, and the reasons structures turn out the way they do.

32 min
The Rise of Iron- and Steel-Framed Buildings

18: The Rise of Iron- and Steel-Framed Buildings

How did iron and steel revolutionize building design? Find out in this trip back to late 18th- and early 19th-century Europe and America, where iron-framed structures-such as sheds at England's Chatham Dockyard, New York City's Equitable Life Insurance Building, and Chicago's First Leiter Building-would set the stage for modern skyscrapers.

32 min
The Great Skyscraper Race

19: The Great Skyscraper Race

The human aspiration to build upward reaches its climax with the skyscraper. Learn the story behind America's "great skyscraper race" and the increasingly sophisticated buildings it produced. Among the structural masterpieces you examine in depth are the Wainwright Building, the Chrysler Building, the Willis Tower, and the World Trade Center towers.

30 min
The Beauty and Versatility of Modern Concrete

20: The Beauty and Versatility of Modern Concrete

Concrete, the world's most commonly used construction material, has been used in buildings that are anything but common. See concrete's versatility at work in an incredible range of structures, including Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, the Salginatobel Bridge in the Swiss Alps, and Dubai's Burj Khalifa (currently the world's tallest building).

33 min
Amazing Thin Shells—Strength from Curvature

21: Amazing Thin Shells—Strength from Curvature

Thin shells are unique structural elements that use curvature—cylindrical, dome-like, or saddle-like—to attain strength and stiffness. See these three types of thin shells used creatively in buildings ranging from St. Paul's Cathedral in London to the Zeiss planetarium in Germany to the Trans World Flight Center at New York's JFK Airport.

30 min
Vast Roof Systems of Iron and Steel

22: Vast Roof Systems of Iron and Steel

The need for roofs spanning large enclosed spaces led to a startling number of new structural systems in the last 200 years. Look closer at long-span structural configurations in places such as the Houston Astrodome, the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, and even the Hartford Civic Center (the collapse of which offers a lesson in the risks of innovation).

32 min
The Incredible Lightness of Tension Structures

23: The Incredible Lightness of Tension Structures

Apply old concepts in new ways with this lecture on tension structures, where all the principal load-carrying elements are in tension. Explore noteworthy examples, from the cable-supported roof of North Carolina's J. S. Dorton Arena to the suspended dish roof of Madison Square Garden to the cable dome of South Korea's Olympic Gymnastics Hall.

32 min
Strategies for Understanding Any Structure

24: Strategies for Understanding Any Structure

What happens when you encounter a noteworthy structure that hasn't been included in this course and you want to know more about it? Professor Ressler devotes his final lecture to answering this question; sending you out into the world with suggested strategies for understanding any structure—great or otherwise.

32 min