Big Bricks, Ancient Answers

Big Bricks, Ancient Answers

pyramids built with bricks

This Passover I indulged in one of my favourite holiday-themed activities, next to cathartically cleaning house: watching the classic 1956 movie epic The Ten Commandments. Between bouts of arguing the relative acting abilities of Yul Brynner vs Chuck Heston (Brynner for the win!), we got to talking about all the theories about the building of the pyramids. When I went to school, the leading theory involved thousands of slaves — much like the Israelites — using a series of dirt ramps to elevate the giant stone blocks required. (My daughter-in-law, on the other hand, is firmly in camp Ancient Aliens)
Though the Israelites in The Ten Commandments (and in the original source) weren’t on pyramid duty, slave labour was definitely a part of Ancient Egyptian society. But scholars have shown that specifically the Great Pyramids were more likely constructed by well-compensated artisans rather than slaves.
How they did it is another mystery to be unraveled; but I wonder if there was some engineering magic at foot, like that recently wrought by researchers at MIT and sculptors at Matter Design. These innovators have created a fascinating set of 3900 lb concrete bricks, which are so precisely calibrated that they can easily be moved by one or two people. This project, called Walking Assembly, was undertaken to explore how ancient peoples might have made their monolithic structures well before the invention of the crane. From the project description:
“Walking Assembly re-introduces the potentials of that ancient knowledge to better inform the transportation and assembly of future architectures. If a brick is designed for a single hand, and a concrete masonry unit (CMU) is designed for two, these massive masonry units (MMU) unshackle the dependency between size and the human body. Intelligence of transportation and assembly is designed into the elements themselves, liberating humans to guide these colossal concrete elements into place.”
The giant bricks are made out of variable-density concrete, which makes for an exact centre of gravity. Builders then tilt and roll the bricks into assemblages like walls and staircases. Check out the video of Walking Assembly in action here!
The designers also cite play as a key aspect of their creation — and the manipulation of the bricks looks fun, in a jungle gym kind of way! It’s possible ancient builders, enslaved or artisans found ways of engineering their materials for maximum efficiency in the way these modern creators do. Whether they had fun is anyone’s guess.

The DIY Nexus between Cars and Computers

DIY tools

It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are some things you can DIY, and some things you can’t. I myself grew up in a very handy household, but even my father handed down the sage advice of always hiring a professional for at least two aspects of maintenance: electricity and plumbing. Pallet planter? Go ahead. Roman blind? Have at it. But anything involving serious risk to life and limb was out.
Which is why I am full of admiration for the inventiveness of a certain homebrew community I read about this week. In the Soviet Union, car ownership was sporadic and limited to the basic, quasi-nationalized brands of cars that were less than reliable and even less than affordable. So, what was an Eastern Bloc car enthusiast to do? According to Jalopnik, build their own — from harvested parts, chunks of other machines entirely, and raw materials like fiberglass and glue. Misha Lanin writes:
“Resources aside, each homemade car is an incarnation of the creator’s automotive dreams, whatever they may have been — air scoops and spoilers and three-figure top speeds, morning commutes not on the dinky trolleybus, family mushroom picking trips deep into the woods.

Like the $19 million Bugatti La Voiture Noir, these cars are one-offs. But the La Voiture Noir is almost destined to endure a solemn existence, probably hidden for most of its life in a Swiss cave, languishing alongside various other supercars, some valuable art, and the Large Hadron Collider. The homemade cars of the Soviet Era were built to be driven, and driven often. (That’s primarily because those who built them had nothing else to drive.)”
Lanin further tells the story of a collector of these extremely limited-edition DIY vehicles, referred to only as Yura. Yura once displayed his own ingenuity when called upon to transport a new acquisition — a meticulously designed, but long mothballed, racing-style car its builder dubbed the Virus — from Volgograd to his home in St. Petersburg, a nearly 1700 km trip. Yura hitched the Virus to the back of another of his collector’s items, a sleek yellow car he called the LamborZhiga. With a minor jackknife on the way, Yura got his cars home — and remains one of the few deep appreciators of this lost art of automotive magic out there.
While I’d probably be terrified of driving one of these cars, I can recognize that they filled a need — and also scratched a creative itch. We at DFC are no strangers to building things from the ground up. Even in computing, if there hadn’t been someone to DIY the first iteration of some of our key concepts and products, where would we be now?