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Civil Engineer Earns Her 15 Minutes of Fame

Jennifer Prichard received her brush with stardom when she was chosen to appear on the documentary Superweapons of the Ancient World, which will air on the Discovery Channel in the fall of 2004.

Jennifer Prichard, Jordan Finch, Al Cobb and Larry Shanes worked as a team to design, construct and test the 40-ft. siege tower.

The documentary, produced by Darlow Smithson Productions, London, challenges a team of young engineers and timber framers to design, construct and test ancient Greek and Roman military weaponry.

Prichard, who graduated in 2002 with a master’s degree in civil engineering from Oklahoma State University, worked with three other team members to recreate a giant siege tower. A similar device was used nearly 2,400 years ago in the Battle of Motya between the Greeks and Carthaginians. Soldiers from the Greek city-state of Syracuse, serving under Dionysius I, used an armored tower, in effect a primitive tank, to breach perimeter walls and overtake the city.

Filmed in April in the small fishing town of Essaouira, Morocco, the show documents Prichard and her team members working to design and build completely in only seven days a structure that would allow an army to traverse 28-ft-high walls. The 40-ft tower consisted of four stories with ramps and a drawbridge, which was built to be level with the second highest level of a city's walls. The tower weighed approximately 18,000 lbs. The structure had less rolling resistance than the engineers expected. It could be moved by pulley system and four camels.

Once the structure's basic form took shape, the team added ramps.

The tower was built completely with timber, including eucalyptus wood and rough sawn pine lumber. Prichard's "contributions were very important in that we were dealing with multiple species of timber," says fellow team member Al Cobb, a builder with construction experience in timber framing. "We were dealing with forces not normally seen in standard or conventional timber framing."

As the only team member with timber design experience, Prichard helped guide the team toward a physically sound structural design. Prichard performed all of the calculations, reassuring the team that the tower would not topple, says Cobb.

"She tested all of the designs for safety, and she kept us from dying," says team member Larry Shanes, who graduated in 2004 from University of North Carolina-Charlotte with a degree in mechanical engineering technology.

Past experience with civil engineering projects helped Prichard significantly in construction of the working replica. A veteran of team cooperation, Prichard’s college career includes involvement in the Southwest Mississippi Resource Conservation & Development’s National Timber Bridge Design Competition, American Institute of Steel Construction’s National Student Steel Bridge Competition and American Society of Civil Engineers’ National Concrete Canoe Competition. "Concrete canoe is almost a year-long process, from the design and conceptual phase to competition," says the five-time participant of ASCE's NCCC. "It taught me how to think outside of the box."

Prichard’s ability to depart from convention is exactly what led the documentary’s producers to select her from 1,200 contenders. "When I applied, I never thought I would get chosen, says Prichard. "I’m a huge reality show fan. It was an experience I will never forget."

Prichard is now working as a structural designer with The Benham Companies, Inc. in Oklahoma City. Her primary focus is on projects ranging from dining facilities to communication towers.

(All photos courtesy of Jennifer Prichard)

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