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 ​Machu Picchu: Engineering Marvel

The article A Marvel of Inca Engineering says that Ken Wright, a hydrologist and civil engineer, has been studying the waterworks and other engineering achievements of Machu Picchu since 1994. 

The ancient Inca wonder of Machu Picchu, 8,000 feet above sea level in the Peruvian Andes, was a royal estate for the legendary Pachacuti, who was largely responsible for building the Inca Empire in the 15th century. In the 1400s, Machu Picchu would have been an even greater site to behold with gleaming white granite walls topped by golden-colored thatched roofs.

Wright says Machu Picchu had a well-engineered water-carriage system that was an engineering marvel. The canal was just the right size for the spring yield, and the fountains are just the right size for the canal. The Inca engineers built strong foundations to make sure Machu Picchu would last forever. Machu Picchu has lasted now for some 500 years.

The Inca buildings have endured because of the good foundations, the slope, the interconnected stones, and tight joints. They built for the ages. The canal and fountain system, designed to provide a steady flow of fresh water, shows remarkable planning and foresight. The Inca had a sense of hygiene and pure water long before Westerners -- for instance, in London.


Their engineering ingenuity provided good drainage for Machu Picchu without which, there would be no Machu Picchu today since about 76 inches per year falls mostly during the wettest 7 months. That's a lot of water, roughly two and a half times as much rain as Chicago gets. The Inca were better urban drainage engineers than we are today because they planned ahead.

Wright adds: "Hiram Bingham [the American explorer who found the site in 1911] called the Sun Temple's Inca wall the most beautiful in South America because of its exceptional design, the way the stone is shaped and carved. It's a masterpiece, and it's beautiful, and it has withstood earthquakes now for 500 years. But from my standpoint as a civil engineer, my greatest admiration is for the water system and the fountains, because they are so out of this world."

The 700 terraces are very permeable so water goes underground to be carried safely away. Terraces are fundamental because they keep the mountain from sliding. So, they are the primary means for soil stabilization and support of buildings and trails, but they also provide agricultural area. These terraces weren't built just for utilitarian soil stewardship purposes. The beautiful curves are a masterpiece of environmental and aesthetic design.

See Terraced Farming in the Amazon Section for more info.

Wright concludes: "The whole system of Machu Picchu is a marvel—not just the water system or the most beautiful wall—but how everything fits together, ranging from the foundations, which would be geo-technical engineering, to site layout, which would be city planning, to trails that deliver people from one location to another without interfering with someone's privacy, to the huge plaza which provided the space for celebrations.

When you look at Machu Picchu as a whole, complete with the temples and the solar observatories, you realize that it is a site that's well designed, well balanced, and somewhat of an engineering marvel

                Another Inca Marvel
On the morning of the summer solstice, light pours into a window of the Temple of the Sun to illuminate a sacred rock.

                    Inca Terraces
About 700 terraces carved into the mountain and fortified by granite walls help keep Machu Picchu stable.

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