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What's the tallest paper structure you can build?

Updated Tuesday, 27th September 2011

Can Adam Hart-Davis and his team build a paper tower to support a person?

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In this clip from the OU/BBC programme Science Shack, Adam Hart-Davis and his team attempt to build the tallest paper tower strong enough to support Adam's weight.

Even though they used paper, the team had to apply serious design and engineering principles. See the video below for their initial ideas and assumptions, the challenges of constructing the tower, and whether Adam can conquer his fear of heights...

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Adam Hart-Davis

I’m challenging the Science Shack team to make the tallest building ever built out of paper.  When they’ve finished they are going to haul me up to the top in a homemade lift.

Male Speaker
I reckon we go for, just as it’s a standard measurement, four foot height.

Adam Hart-Davis

To make it strong enough to support my weight they’re going to roll it into tubes.  Tubes are strong when you push down on them.  Look at this.  This is just newspaper but it’s taking quite a lot of weight.  That’s compression strength.  They’re also quite strong when you pull them, in tension that is, and I certainly can’t break that, but what they’re not good at is bending.  They don’t have any bending strength at all, look at that.  Now, the team tell me that won’t matter the way they’re going to construct this building.  I just hope they’re right.  What are you guys doing?

Female Speaker

We’re about to construct layer one.

Adam Hart-Davis

Okay, so this is one lot of tubes then which is what, about a metre?

Male Speaker

Yeah.  It’s actually four foot, but.

Male Speaker

And this is the, there’s seven, can I?

Male Speaker

Yeah.

Adam Hart-Davis

I won’t break it, will I?  Okay, so we’ve got one in the middle and six round it.  That’s our group of seven tubes.  And how many layers of paper?

Male Speaker

I think there’s about ten on each.

Adam Hart-Davis

Ten on each there, right.  Well, I must admit it looks quite good and strong, doesn’t it?

Female Speaker

Are we going to glue these down first?

Male Speaker

Yes.

Adam Hart-Davis

The cardboard floors also have to be accurately glued.  If they get them wrong the tower could end up leaning to one side.

Female Speaker

Well, that’s one done.  It’s not buckled, it’s yeah, it’s just the outside piece with a wrinkle in.

Male Speaker

We’ve got a few of those where it hasn’t been rolled perfectly.

Female Speaker

We’ll hide that at the top where Adam can’t see it.

Adam Hart-Davis

The team has realised they’ll have to have the lift in place inside the bottom layer as they hoist the rest of the tower around it.  The best way to get the final building up is to first make two three-storey towers.  Then they’ll use the crane to lift one on top of the other.  Now, that’s just halfway.  It’s going to be awful high when they’ve finished.

Male Speaker

Right you ready?

Female Speaker

Yeah.

Adam Hart-Davis

The structure seems very lightweight considering how strong it needs to be.

Female Speaker

Careful!  Careful!  The cardboard’s bending.

Male Speaker

Okay, lower down on this side.

Adam Hart-Davis

To save time the top three levels will just rest on the bottom three.

Female Speaker

Are we okay, Jem?

Male Speaker

Fine, yeah.

Adam Hart-Davis

The team reckon the weight of the steel platform will hold them together without gluing.

Female Speaker

What do you want me to do?

Male Speaker

Straight down, that’s absolutely brilliant.

Female Speaker

Is the back end alright?

Male Speaker

No, that’s looking beautiful.

Female Speaker

Oh wow!

Male Speaker

Where’s the other?

Adam Hart-Davis

Will 252 paper tubes be able to support a lift, a steel platform and a not so slim chap who’s scared of heights?  Right, it’s seven metres high and I’m trying to forget the fact that it’s all made of paper.  Okay, Jem how do I get in?

Male Speaker

I reckon this is probably your best entrance.

Adam Hart-Davis

Through the back.  It’s not very elegant is it?

Male Speaker

It’s not totally ergonomic either but it’s in your interest to avoid the poles.  How does it feel?

Adam Hart-Davis

Okay.  Okay so far.

Male Speaker

Watch the bottom one coming up through now. 

Male Speaker

Yeah, if you lean back slightly maybe.

Adam Hart-Davis

Lean back?  I’m leaning right back now.

Male Speaker

Okay, that’s cool, now, pull it up, Jem.

Adam Hart-Davis

This is the level that wasn’t glued.  If I dared let go of the lift I’d cross my fingers.

Male Speaker

Oh beautifully done, yeah.

Adam Hart-Davis

This is without a doubt the tallest ever paper building with a working lift in it.

Male Speaker

Lean to your left slightly.

Male Speaker

That’s it.

Male Speaker

That is great.  Clip on.

Male Speaker

He’s clipping on.  Give him a minute.

Male Speaker

That’s one of the most important bits.

Adam Hart-Davis

Okay, I’m clipped on.

Male Speaker

Okay.

Adam Hart-Davis

Okay, I’m stepping out.

Male Speaker

Try and come out a little, come out a little bit, well, if you feel like it.

Adam Hart-Davis

I’m seven metres high on a tower of paper.  Wow!  I do not like heights.  If there’s one thing I hate in the world it’s heights and seven metres feels like about a thousand standing up here but I am just on a tower built out of paper.  How high can you build a building?  Well, it seems that in engineering terms there’s virtually no limit.  What really stops it going up for ever is what people are prepared to put up with, and I tell you for me I don’t want to go any higher than this.  When they build that building a mile high I’m not going to be up there.

4’48”

 

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