In director Werner Herzog's 1982 film "Fitzcarraldo," a European ne'er-do-well (portrayed by Klaus Kinski) dreams of becoming rubber mogul in Peru, and comes up with a bizarre solution for reaching a potentially lucrative, but previously inaccessible, parcel of rubber trees. Fitzcarraldo sails up a river as far as he can go in a giant paddlewheel steamship, and then somehow convinces a crew of natives to drag the 300-ton (272.2-metric-ton) craft up a steep mountainside with ropes and pulleys so that he can get to another nearby river and sail on to his destination. Somehow, they succeed [source: Canby].
In the end, fortune still eludes Fitzcarraldo, but something about his determination and sheer gall resonates with us. After all, if there's a single enduring trait that humans have demonstrated throughout the ages, it's the never-ending desire to move really big, heavy objects that can't move under their own power. We still marvel at how the ancient Egyptians managed to drag 2.5-ton (2.3-metric-ton) blocks of granite for miles and then lift them into place when they built the pyramids, all without modern machinery. (Scientists have determined that they used teams of oxen to pull the stones along a slipway lubricated with oil, and then eased them up ramps built of mud brick and coated with plaster [source: Science Daily].) And we can't help but be impressed at the ingenuity of a contractor named B.C. Miller, who in 1888 jacked up the three-story, 174-room Brighton Beach Hotel and built a small stretch of railroad beneath it, so he could move the structure 600 feet (188.8 meters) inland on flatbed cars to protect it from beach erosion [sources: Boston Evening Transcript, Brooklyn Public Library]. Today, we'll fill a stadium to watch a monster truck-pulling contest.
Here's the lowdown on 10 of the heaviest objects that humans have ever relocated.
Ahnighito, also known as the Cape York Meteorite, is a scary-big, 4.5 billion-year-old piece of an asteroid that fell out of the sky and landed in Greenland about 10,000 years ago. Non-Greenlanders first heard about it in 1818, but it wasn't until 1894 that intrepid Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary actually located the meteorite. For some reason, he thought it would be a swell idea to take it back to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Before Peary could get the meteorite onto a ship, he had to get it to the coast, and that required the construction of Greenland's first and only railroad. It took three years to get all that done and transport the meteorite to its present location, where it sits on a special display stand whose supports are anchored into the bedrock beneath the museum [sources: Fabricius, American Museum of Natural History].
Trucks generally move under their own power, but if the engine won't start on your big rig, you might want to call Rev. Kevin Fast for help. The Canadian minister-strongman, who oversees a 120-member congregation at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Cobourg, Ont., has made a hobby out of pulling trucks with sheer brawn.
In 1996, he earned his first entry in the Guinness Book of World Records by towing a 17.6-ton (16-metric-ton) truck for 98.4 feet (30 meters). Six years after that, he improved the record by towing a 28.6-ton (26-metric ton) fire truck the same distance, and in 2008, moved the standard even higher, by dragging a truck weighing 63.1 tons (57.2 metric tons). As Fast once explained to a newspaper reporter, his motto is "Go big, or go home" [source: National Post]. In addition to his truck-towing records, Fast also set the record for aircraft by towing a 208-ton (188.7-metric-ton) plane in 2009 [source: Catel].
The ancient Greeks had the myth of Sisyphus, whom the Gods punished by compelling him to drag a giant stone up a hillside, only to have it roll back to its origin so that he had to repeat the task for eternity. Fortunately, the crew charged with moving a 340-ton (308.4-metric-ton), 21.5-foot (6.6-meter)-high boulder 85 miles (136.8 kilometers) from a valley in Riverside County, Calif., to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art only had to do it once.
Using heavy machinery, they hoisted the boulder -- believed to be the biggest ever moved -- onto a 176-wheel transporter truck, which then drove at night over roads that were temporarily closed to traffic so that it wouldn't present a hazard to motorists. The vehicle inched along at a speed of 10 miles per hour (16 kilometers per hour), and it took a week-and-a-half to make the journey. The purpose of this grueling exercise was to provide artist Michael Heizer with raw material for his giant outdoor sculpture "Levitated Mass," which allows visitors to walk down a 456-foot-long (139-meter), 15-foot-deep (4.5-meter) concrete trough that runs underneath the boulder. Michael Govan, the museum's chief executive, boasted to the Los Angeles Times that "it's pretty clear that this is one of the largest monoliths that's ever been moved" [sources: DesignTaxi, Times Editors].
These days, it's tough even for the record books to keep up with stupendous moving feats, so the newest trend seems to be for folks who move big objects to toot their horns by posting videos on YouTube. One example of that is the Texas Department of Transportation, which in 2010 moved a 850-ton (771.1-metric-ton) Toshiba steam turbine engine from the Port of Houston to a power plant in Riesel, east of Waco.
In order to move the machine, officials had to put together a custom rig consisting of two truck cabs and a total of 520 tires. The unwieldy vehicle stretched the length of a football field but was just 39 feet (11.9 meters) wide. It hauled the massive engine about 250 miles (402 kilometers) on state roads and across 82 bridges at a speed of about 10 miles (16 kilometers) per day, according to a video posted on YouTube by the department, which claims that the turbine represents "the heaviest load that has ever been moved this distance in Texas" [source: TxDOTpio].
Big ships generally move under their own power, or else are guided into harbors by tugboats. But some blokes like to do things the hard way. In 1999, a 34-year-old British strongman named Simon Ford grabbed a rope and pulled the HMS Lancaster, a 2,000-ton (1,814-metric ton) Royal Navy frigate, and its 157-man crew about 25 feet (7.6 meters) at the Devonport dockyard, in Plymouth. Ford, who was performing the feat for charity, collapsed afterward and had difficulty breathing, according to news reports [source: Independent].
Big space rockets are used to transport satellites and manned spaceships into orbit, but before they can do that, somebody has to wheel them into place on the launching pad. And as you might imagine, the immense Saturn V rocket that NASA used to send astronauts to the Moon in the late 1960s to mid-1970s was quite a load to move.
The Saturn V was 363 feet (110.6 meters) tall, which made it 60 feet (18.3 meters) bigger than the Statue of Liberty, and when fully loaded with fuel for liftoff, it tipped the scale at 3,100 tons (2,812 metric tons). That's roughly the weight of 400 elephants [source: NASA]. In order to move the behemoth, NASA had to develop a truck that was nearly as big as the rocket itself, the 2,750-ton, 131-foot-long (39.9-meter) crawler-transporter, which inched along on tanklike treads on a special 3.5-mile-long (5.6-kilometer) road whose surface was coated with Tennessee river rock to reduce the friction. It was designed to be powerful enough to move the equivalent of three Saturn Vs, though nobody has ever tried such a feat.
The two crawler-transporters -- the largest tracked vehicles ever built -- cost about $14 million in the 1960s, which would translate to about $100 million in today's dollars. But they proved so adept at moving the Saturn V that NASA also used them for the Space Shuttle, and is upgrading one of the two vehicles to handle the Space Launch System, the new booster rocket that NASA is developing for future manned missions [source: Major].
We're not exactly sure how much the Brighton Beach Hotel weighed when it was moved in 1888, but we'll go out on a limb and assume that San Jose's Hotel Montgomery, which was built in 1911, is a whole lot heavier. It's four stories tall -- a story higher than the one in Brighton Beach -- and featured a restaurant, a ballroom, and two dining rooms to go with its 142 rooms. It also was the first hotel in its area to be built with reinforced concrete to make it resistant to both fire and earthquakes.
While the original Montgomery was pretty grand in its day, over the decades it declined in elegance and fell into a state of disrepair. In 1989, after plans were made to build a fancy new hotel on its site, San Jose officials decided to relocate the historic structure instead of demolishing it. The Montgomery, which weighed an estimated 4,800 tons (4,354 metric tons), was jacked up so that specially-designed, remote-controlled, rubber-wheeled cars could be slid beneath it. Then the entire structure was moved 186 feet (56.6 meters) away to its present location. That might sound like an ordeal, but the $8.5 million cost of moving the hotel was a lot less than the cost of building a comparable structure. Another $4.5 million was spent to retrofit the Montgomery to make it even more resilient in the event of an earthquake [source: Joie de Vivre Hospitality].
If you thought that turbine engine in Texas was big, get a load of this load, which also is the subject of a celebratory YouTube video. In January 2012, Al-Majdouie, which describes itself as a project logistics and supply chain company -- a fancy way of saying it moves stuff -- transported a giant device called an evaporator down a road to a water desalination plant being built in Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, the company's press release doesn't detail the distance that the machinery traveled, but it does tell us that it was pretty darned huge -- the length of a football field and 4,891 tons (4,437 metric tons) in weight -- which makes it slightly bigger than the Hotel Montgomery.
To move the evaporator, Al-Majdouie used a tractor-trailer truck with 172 axles and 688 double-width tires. The company boasts that the cargo is the biggest ever moved by road in the Middle East, and that probably holds true for the world as well. And they're planning to move a bunch more of them in the near future [source: Almajdouie].
We'd feel remiss if we didn't find a way to fit in a reference to the Titanic, the massive floating luxury hotel that met with a tragic fate by colliding with an iceberg on its maiden voyage in 1912. While the contemporary ocean liner Oasis of the Seas dwarfs the Titanic in size, the Oasis -- like most other modern big ships -- was floated by filling up its dry dock with water, so that it could sail out under its own power. The Titanic, in contrast, was launched the old-fashioned way, by using gravity to slide it down into the water.
On the day of its initial launch in May 1911 from the Belfast shipyard where it was built, the Titanic became the biggest object ever moved by humans up until that time. The ship, which at the time was still being finished, weighed roughly 26,000 tons (23,587 metric tons). Workers used 22 tons (20 metric tons) of tallow and soap to create a 1-inch-thick (2.5-centimeter) layer of lubrication on the slipway, so that the Titanic's bulk could be eased down into the water. At a quarter after noon that day, a rocket was launched in celebration and the timbers holding back the ship were knocked free, and it slid down into the water. The cheering crowd didn't realize it, but the ill-fated ship's launching also caused the first of its many fatalities -- a worker named James Dobbins was struck by one of the timbers [source: Eaton].
Until we start lassoing asteroids for their minerals, it's a safe bet that the record for the most unfathomably gigantic object ever moved by human beings will be held by the Troll A Platform. The Troll A, an offshore natural gas drilling platform off the west coast of Norway, weighs an astonishing 1.2 million tons (1.1 million metric tons) and stands 1,548 feet (471.8 meters) tall, which makes it both the heaviest and the tallest thing that people have transported from one spot to another [sources: Statoil].
Getting the platform to its location 174 miles (280 kilometers) from the Norwegian coast required the services of 10 tugboats -- eight spread out in front pulling the platform, and another two behind it to steer. The unwieldy armada was able to travel at just one knot per hour, so that it took seven days and six hours to get to the destination. Once there, the tugs moved into a star formation around the platform to support it as it was ballasted to stabilize it, and piles were driven 118 feet (36 meters) into the sea bed to hold the platform in place [source: Potter].
HowStuffWorks visits Japan to learn more about uguisubari, or nightingale floors, which were features of Nijo Castles and Toji-in Temple.
Author's Note: 10 Heaviest Objects Mankind Has Ever Moved
I'm fascinated with moving heavy objects, in part because when I was a child, my father actually bought an apartment house that was about to be torn down and moved it to a lot a few yards away that he owned. As I remember, he got a pretty good deal on the building itself, and jacking it up, tearing down the foundation and rolling it up the hill to its new location was a fairly simple process. What turned out to be difficult were the local zoning and building inspection bureaucrats, who kept the project stalled for a couple of years, until they finally relented and allowed my father to build a foundation under the building. Apparently, the idea of moving a building was strange and scary to them, and they figured it would come sliding down the hill. We owned the apartment house for a number of years before he sold it to a friend. As far as I know, the building is still in the spot where my dad moved it.
- Al Majdouie. "Almajdouie Moves World's Largest Evaporator." Almajdouie.com. Jan. 8, 2012. (Sept. 25, 2012) http://www.almajdouie.com/en/mediacenter/news/12-01-08/Almajdouie_Moves_World%E2%80%99s_Largest_Evaporator.aspx
- Boston Evening Transcript. "A Gigantic Work." Boston Evening Transcript. April 4, 1888. (Sept. 25, 2012) http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=1Jk-AAAAIBAJ&sjid=S1oMAAAAIBAJ&pg=6028,250706&dq=biggest+building+ever+moved&hl=en
- Brooklyn Public Library. "Brighton Beach." Brooklypubliclibrary.org. (Sept. 25, 2012)
- Canby, Vincent. "Herzog's 'Fitzcarraldo,' a Spectacle." The New York Times. Oct. 10, 1982. (Sept. 25, 2012) http://www.brooklynpubliclibrary.org/ourbrooklyn/brightonbeach/http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9B01EFDB143BF933A25753C1A964948260
- Catel, Patrick. "Extreme Survival: Surviving Stunts And Other Amazing Feats." Raintree. 2011. (Sept. 25, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?id=tzHwa2Z16ScC&pg=PA37&lpg=PA37&dq=heaviest+weight+pulled+by+human&source=bl&ots=_sLxeFzqRV&sig=FtAii4q5lZRoixQJrI4yck2Ufrk&hl=en&sa=X&ei=WmBiUMmgMInm9ATB9IHoCg&ved=0CCwQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=heaviest%20weight%20pulled%20by%20human&f=false
- Clarkson, Andrew. "Titanic's Launch." Titanic-Titanic.com. (Sept. 25, 2012) http://www.titanic-titanic.com/titanic_launch.shtml
- Eaton, John P. and Charles A. Haas. "Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy." W.W. Norton. 1995. (Sept. 28, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?id=uia8zRfX1koC&pg=PA21&lpg=PA21&dq=launching+of+the+titanic&source=bl&ots=26od8kMtT3&sig=Eq6nFGTcskJfbpfcbPNpsQWuSno&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Rq5lUIuxD4XOqAHxnIGgDQ&ved=0CDkQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=launching%20of%20the%20titanic&f=false
- Design Taxi. "Is This The Heaviest Object Ever Transported In Modern Times?" Designtaxi.com. Aug. 10, 2012. (Sept. 25, 2012) http://designtaxi.com/news/353277/Is-This-The-Heaviest-Object-Ever-Transported-In-Modern-Times/
- Fabricius, Karl. "7 Most Massive Single Meteorites on Earth." Environmentalgraffiti.com. (Sept. 25, 2012) http://www.environmentalgraffiti.com/featured/most-massive-single-meteorites-earth/17225
- Independent. "Strongman Sunk by Navy Frigate." Independent.co.uk. Feb. 19, 1999. (Sept. 25, 2012) http://www.independent.co.uk/news/strongman-sunk-by-navy-frigate-1071701.html
- Joie de Vivre Hospitality. "Joie de Vivre Hospitality Opens the Restored Montgomery Hotel in Downtown San Jose 93 Years After Original Opening." Hospitality.net. July 13, 2004. (Sept. 25, 2012) http://www.hospitalitynet.org/news/4020010.html
- Major, Jason. "NASA's Colossal Crawler Gets Souped-Up for SLS." Universe Today. Sept. 6, 2012. (Sept. 25, 2012) http://www.universetoday.com/97229/nasas-colossal-crawler-gets-souped-up-for-sls/
- NASA. "What Was the Saturn V?" Nasa.gov. Sept. 17, 2010. (Sept. 25, 2012) http://www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/rocketry/home/what-was-the-saturn-v-58.html
- National Post. "Reverend's quiet manner belies his record-beating feats of strength." Canada.com. Oct. 5, 2009. (Sept. 25, 2012) http://www.canada.com/nationalpost/news/toronto/story.html?id=e36f44d0-1d45-4f96-84e8-ffb776772fb5
- Potter, Nell. "Troll and Heidrun: End of an era or forerunners of a modern world?" Offshore. August 1995. (Sept. 26, 2012) http://w3.nexis.com/new/results/docview/docview.do?docLinkInd=true&risb=21_T15616367766&format=GNBFI&sort=BOOLEAN&startDocNo=326&resultsUrlKey=29_T15616367770&cisb=22_T15616367769&treeMax=true&treeWidth=0&csi=8035&docNo=332
- Royal Caribbean Oasis. "Oasis of the Seas: Float Out." YouTube. May 26, 2009. (Sept. 25, 2012) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DU3-G4SOqcw
- Statoil. "The Ultimate Move." Goodideas.statoil.com. (Sept. 26, 2012) http://goodideas.statoil.com/gas-machine#/big-move
- Times Editors. "Giant Rock Arrives at LACMA." Los Angeles Times. Feb. 29, 2012. (Sept. 25, 2012) http://framework.latimes.com/2012/02/29/lacma-rock/#/0
- TxDOTpio. "TxDOT's Heaviest Load." YouTube. Feb. 23, 2010. (Sept. 25, 2012) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4pn4a4a2lA
- ScienceDaily. "How Were The Egyptian Pyramids Built?" March 29, 2008. (Sept. 25, 2012) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080328104302.htm