Golden Gate Bridge
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17 Incredible Feats of American Ingenuity Across the Country

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Golden Gate Bridge
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Trials and Triumphs

Tales of American innovation never get old, and the nation is packed with reminders of the can-do spirit that has led to some of history's most important landmarks, public works, and inventions. Though our list barely scratches the surface, it brings together some of the most monumental feats in U.S. history, and where you can go to learn more about them.

Related: 89 Iconic Buildings and Monuments Across America

Hoover Dam
Bureau of Reclamation

Hoover Dam

Awe-inspiring in size and scope, Hoover Dam has tamed the Colorado River and generates power for millions of homes; it remains one of the country's greatest engineering accomplishments despite being completed back in 1935. The massive structure on the Arizona-Nevada border required 45 million pounds of steel, a staggering 6.6 million tons of concrete, and the effort of about 21,000 workers, some of whom were killed in falls while clearing canyon walls.
Check it out: The Department of the Interior offers daily guided tours of Hoover Dam that let visitors explore interior tunnels and get a close-up view of the dam's massive generators; access is also granted to extensive exhibits on the dam's construction as well as observation decks.

Related: Awesome Views in All 50 States

Saturn V Rocket
NASA

Saturn V Rocket

NASA's Saturn V made one of the most iconic moments of the 20th century possible, propelling Neil Armstrong to the moon in 1969. At more than 363 feet tall, it was about as high as a 36-story building and generated 7.6 million pounds of thrust during launch. The rocket powered a dozen Apollo missions in the late '60s and early '70s, finally taking Skylab, the first U.S. space station, into orbit during its last launch.
Check it out: There are three places across the U.S. where you can marvel at a Saturn V, all with more than enough space exhibits and attractions to fill a day or more: Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida; the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama; and Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Related: The One Thing You Must Do in Every State

Empire State Building
Empire State Building by Lewis Hine (CC BY)

Empire State Building

Old-fashioned competition and ego powered the construction of Manhattan's Empire State Building, as backers raced to make it taller than the Chrysler Building, which rose in the late 1920s. In fact, the Empire State Building took only 20 months to complete despite becoming the world's tallest building at 1,250 feet. Workers constructed an innovative system of railways, brick hoppers, and hoists to build at a blistering rate of 4.5 stories a week, and the Great Depression helped ensure a ready workforce of at least 4,000 men.
Check it out: A trip up to the Empire State Building's observation decks remains a bucket-list activity for many New York City tourists. The 86th floor hosts an open-air observatory, while there's enclosed viewing from the 102nd floor. Don't miss the exhibits on the second floor, where you can even snap a photo with King Kong as his hands crash through the windows.

Related: Skyscraper Bucket List: America's 25 Tallest Buildings

The Wright Flyer
The Wright Flyer by John T. Daniels (CC BY)

The Wright Flyer

It's a far cry from the jumbo jets that speed passengers across oceans today, but the humble wood-frame Wright Flyer became the world's first airplane with a 12-second flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903. Orville and Wilbur Wright, who had begun studying flight only in 1896, had improved on their previous gliders by adding a gasoline-powered propulsion system, and the rest is history: The most successful flight of the day kept Wilbur in the air for 59 seconds; two years later, he flew for 39 minutes.
Check it out: The Wright Flyer is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and there is an entire exhibit dedicated to the Wright Brothers built around it. But true aviation buffs will also want to visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kitty Hawk and various Wright-related sites in the brothers' hometown of Dayton, Ohio.

The Interstate Highway System
National Museum of American History

The Interstate Highway System

Highways are such a part of the day-to-day grind that it can be hard to appreciate how much they revolutionized U.S. life, allowing people and goods to travel much faster between far-flung places. President Dwight Eisenhower signed a bill in 1956 authorizing the construction of 41,000 miles of highways that would connect all corners of the country, paying for the massive project with higher gasoline taxes. The first portion completed was what's now part of Interstate 70 near St. Louis; the longest interstate, I-90, connects Boston and Seattle and spans more than 3,000 miles.
Check it out: The "America on the Move" exhibit at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., chronicles the rise of the American highway, including an in-depth look online.

Related: 77 Attractions to See While Driving Across the Country

Chicago River Reversal
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Chicago River Reversal

In the late 19th century, Chicago had a big problem: Chemicals, sewage, and other dangerous pollutants were flowing into Lake Michigan from the Chicago River, contaminating the city's main source of drinking water and contributing to deaths from cholera and other diseases. So a plan was hatched to reverse the river's course using gravity and a massive canal, allowing cleaner water from the lake to flow into the river and push the contaminated water downstream. The Herculean effort cost $70 million and helped inform an even bigger project that was yet to come: construction of the Panama Canal.
Check it out: A number of boat tours give visitors a firsthand look at how the Chicago River flows today, but for a more active experience, a kayak tour allows participants to learn about how the river helped shape the city, including its infamous reversal and massive drawbridge system.

The Model T
The Model T by ModelTMitch (CC BY)

The Model T

Henry Ford's Model T, manufactured from 1908 to 1927, revolutionized the nation's fledgling automobile industry because it was the first car that average people actually had a shot at affording. The self-starting car eventually became so popular that it necessitated another ingenious feat: the first moving assembly line, the use of which made manufacturing much more efficient and led to further Model T price reductions.
Check it out: Why go see a Model T in a museum when you can take a ride in one? It's possible during a visit to Henry Ford's Model T District in Greenfield Village, just outside Detroit. You'll also get to see Ford's childhood home, a reconstructed Ford assembly plant, and more. Inside the Henry Ford Museum of Innovation, help build a Model T and experience a working assembly line.

Related: 37 Vintage Car Design Features You Don't See Anymore

Mount Rushmore
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Mount Rushmore

It took 400 workers 14 years to remove 450,000 tons of rock during the carving of Mount Rushmore, the South Dakota landmark featuring the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Led by sculptor Gutzon Borglum, teams used powerful jackhammers that they had to operate with air compressors connected to an 1,800 foot pipeline, adding a misty gas to keep them running when the weather was cold. Though the 60-foot heads are a marvel to behold, the size of the still-in-progress Crazy Horse Memorial a short distance away will eclipse them several times over.
Check it out: Mount Rushmore National Memorial is open every day, though the information center and other buildings close on Christmas. Visitors can join ranger talks detailing the sculpting process and lives of the workers, take an audio tour, and walk a short trail for a closer view. The Crazy Horse Memorial also welcomes visitors.

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The Light Bulb
The Light Bulb by Terren (CC BY)

The Light Bulb

And then there was light, thanks largely to Thomas Edison. Though often credited with inventing the light bulb, Edison actually built on the progress of previous scientists, eventually patenting an incandescent bulb practical and inexpensive enough for widespread use. He would also begin the first investor-owned utility, known today as General Electric, and was responsible for scores of other inventions, including the phonograph. All of this was in spite of the fact that he was left nearly deaf as a child, something Edison looked at as an advantage because it spared him "all the meaningless sound that normal people hear" and gave him more time to think and tinker.
Check it out: A visit to Thomas Edison National Historic Park in West Orange, New Jersey, is a must for any aspiring inventor. Tour his laboratory complex, where there is a collection of early light bulbs and other inventions, and continue to his sprawling Victorian mansion, Glenmont.

Related: 50 Facts You Learned in School That Are Actually Lies

Golden Gate Bridge
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Golden Gate Bridge

The now-iconic Golden Gate Bridge met with opposition every step of the way, with naysayers contending it would disrupt shipping, crumble in an earthquake, and sully the beauty of San Francisco Bay. The project also ran into financial difficulties because of the Great Depression. Construction began eventually in 1933, and that, too, was beset with difficulties, including when a ship ran into a trestle during a storm; four years later, 10 workers would die in a fall from scaffolding. The bridge finally opened in 1937, remaining the world's tallest bridge until 1993 and the world's longest suspension span until 1981.
Check it out: The Golden Gate National Recreational Area provides plenty of vantage points for great views of the bridge. Various companies also give you the opportunity to rent a bike and pedal across the bridge, or cruise under it on a scenic boat trip around San Francisco Bay.

The Cotton Gin
The Cotton Gin by Dsdugan (CC BY)

The Cotton Gin

More than a century before Henry Ford would speed up automobile manufacturing with the assembly line, Eli Whitney revolutionized cotton production with the cotton gin. His hand-cranked machine could remove the seeds from 50 pounds of cotton a day; in contrast, human cotton pickers could remove seeds from only about 1 pound of cotton in a day. The invention meant far more cotton could make its way to textile mills far more cheaply. Sadly, it also incentivized plantation owners to plant larger cotton crops, and bring in more slaves to do so.
Check it out: The Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop in Hamden, Connecticut, illuminates Whitney's legacy for visitors, including Whitneyville, his manufacturing village. It hosts walk-in projects on weekends for kids who want to experience the thrill of invention.

One World Trade Center
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One World Trade Center

If the Empire State Building is the engineering triumph of old New York, One World Trade Center is the masterpiece of the modern Big Apple. A symbolic response to the 9/11 attacks, the 1,776-foot building rises from the site of the destroyed Twin Towers and was engineered with innovative safety systems to prevent a similar catastrophe. For instance, the "load shedding" steel frame is made specially to withstand the collapse of several supports, and the stairways are extra wide and feature direct exits to the street. Thick concrete reinforcements protect the cavernous lobby from explosions.
Check it out: The One World Trade Center observatory is open to ticketed visitors. Highlights include a 14-foot glass disc called the Sky Portal that uses high-definition footage of the streets floors below to create a hair-raising experience. One of several exhibits also details the tower's construction.

Related: 20 Bucket List Buildings in America You Need to Visit

ARPANET
Computer History Museum

ARPANET

Who invented the internet? By now, everyone knows it wasn't Al Gore (who never actually claimed that he did). But most experts do agree that the ARPANET, a project conceived by the U.S. Department of Defense in the late '60s to link computers at research institutions across the country, gave rise to the modern-day internet as we know it. Through the '70s, ARPANET saw the first tests of file transfer protocols, listservs, and even email. Eventually, it was a proving ground for TCP/IP, networking technology that most people still use daily while they're browsing the Web or communicating with friends online.
Check it out: You can't tinker on a computer at the Pentagon, but you can certainly get a comprehensive overview of the nascent internet era at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, a stone's throw from the headquarters of tech giants such as Google, Apple, and Facebook.

Related: 15 Historic Events We Want to Relive

Erie Canal
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Erie Canal

In the early 19th century, a young United States faced a quandary: There was no water route linking the Northwest Territory and its rich natural resources to the more populated East Coast. So began the eight-year construction process of the 400-mile, 83-lock Erie Canal, which would link Buffalo and Lake Erie with New York City via the Hudson River. Dynamite wasn't invented yet, so laborers had to blast away rock with gunpowder; along the way, engineers found ways to innovate, including inventing cement that could set underwater. The crucial new link set the stage for New York's growth and the explosion of manufacturing and tourism in the U.S.
Check it out: The Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor stretches the width of New York state, offering ample opportunities to appreciate this landmark. Follow an itinerary of sites near Albany for a good overview, including plenty of spots to paddle, bike, and hike on and near the canal.

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The Atomic Bomb
National Archives at College Park

The Atomic Bomb

In the late '30s, the U.S. government got sobering news from its spies: Adolf Hitler's scientists were working to create a nuclear weapon. In response, the U.S. launched the top-secret Manhattan Project, which stitched together the expertise of scientists such as physicists and chemists, plus many others at scores of sites across the nation — perhaps more than 600,000 people in all. In 1945, a team led by J. Robert Oppenheimer detonated an atomic bomb successfully in the New Mexico desert. Soon thereafter, two atomic bombs leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, ending World War II but killing tens of thousands of people and helping usher in the Cold War era.
Check it out: The Manhattan Project National Historic Park encompasses sites in Los Alamos, New Mexico; Oak Ridge, Tennessee (where uranium was enriched); and Hanford, Washington (where plutonium was created). Tours are possible in the latter two locations, but access is limited in New Mexico. Visitors who plan ahead may be able to visit the Trinity Site, where the atomic bomb was first tested, on the first Saturday of April and October.

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New York City Subway
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New York City Subway

New York's subway wasn't the first in the U.S. — that honor goes to Boston — but it quickly became the largest. The system opened in 1904 with a 9-mile, 28-station line under Manhattan. But getting to that point was no small feat: Engineers had to build the tunnels while allowing city life to continue as uninterrupted as possible above, so they used a "cut and cover" construction method — covering deep trenches with timber above while work happened at a dizzying pace below. The bulk of the construction wouldn't be finished until the 1940s, but today, roughly 5.5 million people ride the subway on an average weekday, making it a crucial component of life in the Big Apple.
Check it out: A visit to the New York Transit Museum, housed in a decommissioned subway station in Brooklyn, allows a comprehensive look at how the city's subway came to be. There's also a large collection of vintage subway cars.

Related: 22 Cities Where You Can Live Without a Car

Going-to-the-Sun Road, Glacier National Park, Montana
Joe Wiggins/istockphoto

Going-to-the-Sun Road

Planning and construction of one of the world's most beautiful and hair-raising roads, Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road, took more than two decades. Surveys alone required teams of men to climb thousands of feet and dangle over cliffs while taking measurements, and the excavation of one hard-to-access tunnel required laborers to carry out rock by hand. Though completed in 1933, the road wasn't paved in its entirety until the early 1950s, thanks largely to lapses in work during World War II.
Check it out: Driving the length of Going-to-the-Sun is typically possible from late June through early October, subject to ever-changing Montana weather conditions. To hear more about the history of the road and the park itself, consider hopping aboard a vintage 1930s bus for one of the park's signature Red Bus Tours.