All in all, It's just another Brick in the wall

Let's get back to the 5th Century BC in time. Without the internet and skyscrapers, the world is good. Yet before we go into the fairytales, there are conflicts between tribes and civilizations that are going on continuously. Not so right now, huh? Imagine that you are the ruler of an enormous empire adjacent to India and that nomadic tribes from the north invade and assault the people. Too specific, right? This was the situation faced by King Xuan, the eleventh king of the Chinese dynasty. Now, because it would be costly to fight, he had to find a way to hold these attackers out and defend his people. So he chose to do something that became very popular in late 2016 in the United States, to build a wall. This wall was to be constructed and patrolled for strategic purposes. The use of stones would lead to a difficult task, and concrete was not yet invented. So the engineers decided to use something they've got in abundance, and they don't have to transport: mud. They made mud and clay blocks and established China's first wall.

This thing was supposed to be small enough to hold in your hands, bind with each other using mortar, and be excellent under compression. This thing is what we today call Brick. Brick is said to be the first-ever human-made material used for construction. These tiny blocks have the potential to capture the imagination of the future by binding together in numbers of hundreds, thousands or millions in some cases. From protecting civilizations to being an aesthetic treatment in constructions, from being used in bridges to bridging the gap between pop-cultures, Brick has done it all. Ask any archaeologist, and he/she will tell that they find for bricks while excavation to find civilizations.

The Humble Brick.

Brick is a block of clay which has stuck around since 9000 years. It is a fantastic piece of engineering, which is simple but very effective. This block of pottery is heated in furnaces to cure. Clay has water droplets in them, which leads to weaknesses. When burned, these droplets evaporate, and a dense clay block is a result which has very high strength. While heating, the time and the temperature are also crucial to the properties. Heat it for less time, and it will be soft and mushy. Heat it for more time, and it will be brittle. The Chinese figured the effect of heating time and later the time and temperatures were standardised by the British. For centuries, the heat from the sun was used for curing bricks. In parts of Africa, this is still practised. This can be seen in the video by Smarter Every Day.

The Chinese story

Making a monument which is longer than 6500 km is no small achievement. The Great Wall of China, when built for the first time, was the largest human-made monument ever. It took around 700,000 people to make this wall and a total of 10 years. The whole length was constructed using rocks, sand, earth and brick. But this being the 5th Century BC, the blocks used back then were very different than the ones that are currently used. As discussed earlier, mud was used to make these bricks.1

The first Great Wall of China construction.

Before this wall was applied to its purpose, it did not stand the test of nature. As the location of this wall is in the northern areas of China, it quickly eroded from rain, storm and snow. The mud bricks could not cash the cheques that the Chinese people had demanded. To solve this problem, the engineers turned to a process that they had followed for centuries: pottery. Pottery was baked in furnaces before it was put to final use. So, the engineers set up local kilns at the sites to fire the bricks and get the demanded strength of them. This process worked the magic that was required. Erosion and weathering was no longer a problem. They also came up with a new mortar made of lime and rice glue. This mortar can still be found in the wall and has stood the test of time.

Home sweet Rome

In the peak of the empire, every building, monument, temples, stadiums and even bathhouses were made using bricks. Nowadays, cement and rebars are used to do the same because of their superiority in tension and compression loading. But this was not possible in that period. For this reason, all the constructions were under compressive loads. This led to a considerable problem: gateways. As discussed earlier, bricks are excellent in compressive loads. But the major drawback is that they are terrible in tension. Similar to stones, there are faults inside the body which expand and fail when put under tension. The upper horizontal log will be an issue for this. It will start sagging and will fail in a few days.

This problem was solved by very smart design. As explained in the video above (The above video at this time), the arch was the solution to this. And arches were very easy to make using bricks. Bricks were first to cut into wedges and then sanded into the curve that the arches make.2 It is still so profound that you can’t push a card between those bricks. The design is still used in many monuments like Sagrada Familia (in the video above,) The Gateway of India, The India Gate, and various others.

The Colosseum with the arches to carry the compressive loads.

Home is where Buckingham palace is.

London turned to construction using Bricks to overcome one of the greatest disasters it had ever faced. On September 2, 1666, flames engulfed the city of London. The town was burnt to ashes. After around four days, when the people returned to the town to collect the remains and rebuilt the city, they noticed something very peculiar. The outer city wall was unharmed from the fire. In addition to that, it didn’t let the flames propagate to other areas. You would have guessed that this wall was built using bricks. The reason: Brick is fireproof. The fire ironically baked the bricks and made them more durable.3

It can be seen that the wall kept the fire in and also protected the tower of London.

In the wake of the fire, Christopher Wren, the chief builder of London and the King, together imposed new regulations on the construction in London. Every new building must be made from fireproof materials. London turns to brick. But people wanted to use fireproof products that could withstand any catastrophe that would come around, but the city also needs to build quickly. Brick construction is very time taking as the buildings have to lay down one by one. The engineers came up with a specific new shape of brick to solve this issue: the Rectangular Brick. By this, the time taken to construct a wall was cut down in half, and specific patterns were made possible, which lead to more strong walls.

This solution was also used by William Cubit, in the design of the Digswell Viaduct. This train bridge was a boom to the industrial revolution after the invention of the steam engine. This bridge used a new kind of brick called the “Engineering Brick” to solve the problem of vibrations by the passage of a train. All bricks have tiny pores or air pockets that can act as weak spots when they encounter force. Engineering brick is made by mechanically pressing the clay to be less porous, increasing strength. These bricks are pressed and extruded and then cut into blocks. Engineering brick is still used in various applications to make the construction earthquake-proof.

Don't judge a brick by its colour.

Brick, as we know it today, is no longer used in the construction of skyscrapers. This is because a brick wall is fragile in lateral forces. With an increase in altitude, the winds will impose a very high lateral load on the skyscraper. This problem was tried to solve by Burnham & Root in the construction of the Monadnock building. The building is one of the biggest failures of brick as a construction material. With the invention of elevators and increasing risk of indoor fires, fireproof buildings were in demand. To make it happen, Burnham & Root came up with a vision to erect the tallest Brick skyscraper in the world. To withstand the lateral wind loads, they increased the thickness of the walls. This leads to extra bricks and a lot of mass. Due to this, the building was found to be sinking in the next few days.4 To overcome this problem, bricks were replaced by steel by redesigning the whole building and blocks being used only in the outer layer of the walls. This layer served as a fireproof aesthetic layer for the building.

The building as seen from Dearborn Street in 2005.

Brick, later on, went on to become a pop culture icon. The invention of plastic brought the first wave of brick popularity. With advancements in the injection moulding technology, Lego building became one of the most loved and followed toys. Legos consist of colourful interlocking plastic bricks accompanying an array of gears, figurines called minifigures, and various other parts. With the uprising of the sandbox video game called Minecraft, virtual brick constructions became popular. Any kid who loved Phineas and Ferb will know that there was a separate episode dedicated to Brick. Brick was used as a toy in that episode and said that it could be used to construct anything a child wants. Many songs are named after Brick the most notable are Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall”, Ben Folds Five’s “Brick”, Paramore’s “Brick By Boring Brick” and various others.

Brick being energy efficient, low maintenance, weatherproof, fireproof, strength, and appearance make them one of the most used man-made objects in the world. It’s small enough to hold in your hand, but if you bind hundreds, thousands or millions of them together, these tiny blocks can capture the imagination and help build our future.

Your turn.

Thank you guys, for making it to the end of the article. If you think this was a good read, please consider subscribing and share it with your friends. Show them how cool you are. Also, let me know what do you want to read about next. You can find the links to the social media below:

  1. Reddit:r/theinvisiblegenius
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Reference links

  1. 'Lost' Great Wall of China Segment Found? Google Earth, carbon dating suggest wall network even bigger than thought
  2. Imago triumphalis: the function and significance of triumphal imagery for Italian Renaissance rulers. Peter Lang. ISBN 978-0-8204-6235-6.
  3. The London Wall|Demise
  4. Monadnock Building Found to Be Sinking


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