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Invention Mysteries TM
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The story of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Illinois inventor who figured out how to straighten it     Send a link to a friend

By Paul Niemann

[AUG. 28, 2003]  How it all began:

In 1172, a widow named Berta di Bernardo left 60 coins in her will for the purchase of some stones for the creation of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Back then, it would be called just the Tower of Pisa, since it didn't begin to tilt until five years later. Construction of the tower began on Aug. 9, 1173, but it's unknown who designed it.

Standing 187 feet tall, the tower is built on a riverbed only 6 feet above sea level. The ground beneath the tower is made up of uneven layers of sand and clay, which caused it to lean to the north just five years after construction began, while they were working on the third floor. The tilt was then overcorrected, and the tower began leaning to the south. Subsequent efforts to correct the tower made it lean even further, leaving the top 17 feet from where it was originally planned. This flaw is what gives the tower its notoriety and makes it stand out as a tourist attraction.

Construction was interrupted several times, mainly due to wars, and the tower was finally completed in 1350. It's believed that if construction had been allowed to continue uninterrupted, the ground would not have had time to settle properly and the tower would have toppled over.

The story of one man's efforts to straighten it out:

There had been many attempts to correct the tilt over the years, but each one failed. Then Richard Wright, a 77-year-old inventor from Collinsville, Ill., came up with a solution -- one that he had been working on since the early 1970s.

In 1995, he sent a letter by certified mail to the mayor of Pisa, Italy. In the letter, which was signed for and received by the mayor's office, Rich explained how the tower could be straightened with a heavy weight to counteract the tilt. With the diagrams that he drew up, he showed that they should counteract the weight below the ground, at the bedrock level, which could be achieved by erecting another building next to the tower on the opposing north side. "Weight is weight, and the new building could be used as a tourist device. The more tourists that visit the building, the more weight that is used," Rich explained. His solution would lead to a gradual correction, which is what was needed.


[to top of second column in this article]

Roughly a year later, a TV story showed that tower officials had begun to straighten the tower by using weights to counteract the tilt. "The method that I suggested was put to use," Richard said, "but instead of using a building as a weight, they drilled into the bedrock on the opposite side of the tilt and added many tons of lead ingots above the ground."

They used Rich's idea but not his plan. Then something went wrong and the tower overcorrected. No one knows for sure what happened, but one possible explanation is that they tried to freeze the foundation under the tower with liquid nitrogen and then started removing stones. They didn't realize it at the time, but these stones were actually part of the tower's foundation. They used Rich's idea of counterbalancing the tower with weight, but their method was different, and the result was that the correction was too large.

Maybe they should have used Rich's plan instead.

I've known Rich for six years now. I met him at an inventor's meeting in 1998, and we soon began working together to get one of his inventions on the market. He wasn't looking for any kind of payment or reward for his tower efforts. Just knowing that his solution might straighten the tower -- and that he might be changing the tower's course of history -- was enough reward.

Could it have been a coincidence? Sure, but we'll probably never know. Rich continues to invent because it's what he loves to do. Like a lot of inventors, his mind is always working trying to solve more problems and develop new products.

The tower is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. What would happen if they tried to straighten the tower to make it perfectly level? The people of Pisa would never allow that to happen. After all, the Leaning Tower of Pisa must lean.

[Paul Niemann]

Paul Niemann is a contributing author to Inventors' Digest magazine, and he also runs MarketLaunchers.com, building websites for inventors. He can be reached at niemann7@aol.com.

Copyright Paul Niemann 2003

Last week's column in LDN: "These celebrities co-starred as real-life inventors"

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