How Persistent Engineers Kept the Leaning Tower of Pisa Standing

Grady Hillhouse of Practical Engineering took a look at the history of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy, noting how the 12th-century tower began leaning almost immediately. A couple of wars took place at the site, along with the passage of time, which led to an increased lean. In 1990, engineers, architects, and historians knew they had to address the lean before the tower fell over.

 Over the roughly six  centuries from when it was built to modern time, that iconic tilt continued to increase to a point in 1990, when the tower was closed to the public for fear that it was near collapse. The Italian  Government appointed a committee of engineers, architects, and experts in historical restoration to decide how to fix the structure once and for all.

The engineers were very persistent and extremely inventive, using everything within their professional arsenal to keep the tower standing by reducing that lean.

They ultimately came  up with three ideas to save the tower. The first one was to pump out groundwater from  the sand below the north side of the tower… Another idea was electroosmosis…Turns out the soil was  too conductive…and all the other effects of mixing electricity and saturated soil made the process pretty much useless …So, the committee was down to one last idea: under-excavation. If they couldn’t get the soil  below the tower to consolidate, they could just  take some out.

Ultimately, the under-excavation idea worked well, and the groundbreaking techniques are still being used today. The intention was not to straighten the tower out perfectly, but rather not to have it lean so much that it was dangerous to the public. Maintaining the signature lean also connected the building to its long history.

Of course, they didn’t straighten it all the way. The lean isn’t  just a fascinating oddity; it is integral to the historical character of the tower. It’s a big part  of why we care. Tilting is in the Campanile’s DNA,and in that way, the stabilization project was just a continuation of an 850-year-old process. Unlike the millions of photos with tourists  pretending to hold the tower up, the contractors, restoration experts, and engineers actually  did it (for the next few centuries, at least).

Leaning Tower of Pisa Engineering
Lori Dorn
Lori Dorn

Lori is a Laughing Squid Contributing Editor based in New York City who has been writing blog posts for over a decade. She also enjoys making jewelry, playing guitar, taking photos and mixing craft cocktails.