“Business is not just doing deals; business is having great products, doing great engineering, and providing tremendous service to customers. Finally, business is a cobweb of human relationships. — Ross Perot
As a child I was always interested in civil engineering and its related fields of land, engineering, and geodetic surveying. In fact I had dreams of attending the Colorado School of Mines. It didn’t quite work out the way I had envisioned so I had to do it the hard way by working in the field beginning as summer worker at the ripe age of 16 and continuing on with night school and correspondence education for the next 55 years. Throughout this period I never lost my love of civil engineering and surveying and was able to practice this profession on a global basis.
When I relocated to California in 1962 began 10 years of experience working as a highway engineer for the California Division of Highways (now Caltrans) where I learned a great deal about highway and bridge planning, design, and construction. One of the major bridge projects I worked on was the Vincent Thomas Suspension Bridge linking San Pedro, Los Angeles, with Terminal Island. It was while working on this project that I learned a great deal about bridge design and construction and increased my respect for those responsible designing and managing the construction of these magnificent transportation arteries.
On May 24, 1883 after 14 years and 27 deaths while being constructed, the Brooklyn Bridge over the East River was opened, connecting the great cities of New York and Brooklyn for the first time in history. Thousands of residents of Brooklyn and Manhattan Island turned out to witness the dedication ceremony, which was presided over by President Chester A. Arthur and New York Governor Grover Cleveland. Designed by the late John A. Roebling, the Brooklyn Bridge was the largest suspension bridge ever built to that date.
John Roebling, born in Germany in 1806, was a great pioneer in the design of steel suspension bridges. He studied industrial engineering in Berlin and at the age of 25 immigrated to western Pennsylvania, where he attempted, unsuccessfully, to make his living as a farmer.
John Roebling and his brother arrived in the United States at an interesting time. The nation was in the later stages of an economic boom, which ended in the Panic of 1837. Farmers were deeply affected by it. A dominant mode of thought in America would be called manifest destiny by the 1840s. Transportation between eastern industrial hubs and frontier farming markets had become a matter of both national and popular interest. Many transportation projects were underway near the location he chose for his colony, but instead of continuing an engineering profession, he took up farming.
Agrarian work was unsatisfactory to John Roebling, and the colony attracted very few settlers. In 1837, after the death of his brother and the birth of his first child, he returned to engineering as a vocation.
Roebling's first engineering work in America was devoted to improving river navigation and canal building. He spent three years surveying for railway lines across the Allegheny Mountains, from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, for the state of Pennsylvania. In 1840 he wrote to suspension bridge designer Charles Ellet, Jr., offering to help with the design of a bridge near Philadelphia:
“The study of suspension bridges formed for the last few years of my residence in Europe my favourite occupation. Let but a single bridge of the kind be put up in Philadelphia, exhibiting all the beautiful forms of the system to full advantage, and it needs no prophecy to foretell the effect which the novel and useful features will produce upon the intelligent minds of the Americans.”
He later moved to the state capital in Harrisburg, where he found work as a civil engineer. He promoted the use of wire cable and established a successful wire-cable factory.
Roebling began producing “wire rope” in 1841. At that time canal boats from Philadelphia were transported over the Allegheny Mountains on railroad cars to access waterways on the other side of the mountains, so that the boats could continue to Pittsburgh. The system of inclines and levels that moved the boats and conventional railroad cars was a state-owned enterprise, the Allegheny Portage Railroad. The railroad cars were pulled up and down the inclines by a long loop of thick hemp rope, up to 2-1/2 inches thick. The hemp ropes were expensive and had to be replaced frequently. Roebling remembered an article he read about wire ropes. Soon after, he started developing a 7-strand wire rope at a ropewalk that he built on his farm.
In 1844 Roebling won a bid to replace the wooden canal aqueduct across the Allegheny River with the Allegheny Aqueduct. His design encompassed seven spans of 163 feet, each consisting of a wooden trunk to hold the water supported by a continuous cable made of many parallel wires, wrapped tightly together, on each side of the trunk. This was followed in 1845 by building a suspension bridge over the Monongahela River at Pittsburgh. In 1848 Roebling undertook the construction of four suspension aqueducts on the Delaware and Hudson Canal. During this period, he moved to Trenton, New Jersey. In Trenton, Roebling built a large industrial complex for wire production. This complex inspired the Trenton, New Jersey motto of Trenton Makes – The World Takes” on Trenton's Lower Trenton Bridge.
Roebling's next project, starting in 1851, was a railroad bridge connecting the New York Central and Great Western Railway of Canada over the Niagara River, which would take four years. The bridge, with a clear span of 825 feet, was supported by four, ten-inch wire cables, and had two levels, one for vehicles and one for rail traffic.
Meanwhile, he earned a reputation as a designer of suspension bridges, which at the time were widely used but known to fail under strong winds or heavy loads. Roebling is credited with a major breakthrough in suspension-bridge technology: a web truss added to either side of the bridge roadway that greatly stabilized the structure. Using this model, Roebling successfully bridged the Niagara Gorge at Niagara Falls, New York, and the Ohio River at Cincinnati, Ohio. On the basis of these achievements, New York State accepted Roebling's design for a bridge connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan--with a span of 1,595 feet--and appointed him chief engineer. It was to be the world's first steel suspension bridge.
Unfortunately just before construction began in 1869, Roebling was fatally injured while taking a few final compass readings across the East River. A boat smashed the toes on one of his feet, and three weeks later he died of tetanus. He was the first of more than two dozen people who would die building his bridge. His 32-year-old son, Washington A. Roebling, took over as chief engineer. Roebling had worked with his father on several bridges and had helped design the Brooklyn Bridge.
From mid-1865 to 1867, Roebling worked with his father on the Cincinnati-Covington Bridge (now the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge). While traveling in Europe to research bridges and caisson foundations, his only son, John A. Roebling, II, was born. After returning in 1868, Washington became assistant engineer on the Brooklyn Bridge, and was named chief engineer after his father's death in mid-1869. He made several important improvements on the bridge design and further developed bridge building techniques. Thus, he designed the two large pneumatic caissons that became the foundations for the two towers. In 1870, fire broke out in one of the caissons; from within the caisson, Roebling directed the efforts to extinguish the flames. Working in compressed air in these caissons under the river caused him to get decompression sickness ("the bends") shattering his health and rendering him unable to visit the site, yet he continued to oversee the Brooklyn project to successful completion in 1883. Besides the bends, he may have had additional afflictions, possible neurasthenia, side effects of treatments, and secondary drug addiction. His wife, Emily Warren Roebling, who had taken it upon herself to learn bridge construction, became his nurse, companion, and confidant and took over much of the chief engineer's duties including day-to-day supervision and project management. Although husband and wife jointly planned the bridge's continued construction, Emily successfully lobbied for formal retention of Washington as chief engineer. David McCullough, in his book The Great Bridge, remarked that "nowhere in the history of great undertakings is there anything comparable to Roebling conducting the largest and most difficult engineering project ever in absentia".
Roebling would battle the after-effects from the caisson disease and its treatment the rest of his life.
The two granite foundations of the Brooklyn Bridge were built in timber caissons, or watertight chambers, sunk to depths of 44 feet on the Brooklyn side and 78 feet on the New York side. Compressed air pressurized the caissons, allowing underwater construction. At that time, little was known of the risks of working under such conditions, and more than a hundred workers suffered from cases of compression sickness. Decompression sickness, or the "bends," is caused by the appearance of nitrogen bubbles in the bloodstream that result from rapid decompression. Several died. Other workers died as a result of more conventional construction accidents, such as collapses and a fire.
After his falling to decompression sickness Roebling continued to direct construction operations from his home, and his wife, Emily, carried his instructions to the workers. In 1877, Washington and Emily moved into a home with a view of the bridge. Roebling's health gradually improved, but he remained partially paralyzed for the rest of his life. On May 24, 1883, Emily Roebling was given the first ride over the completed bridge, with a rooster, a symbol of victory, in her lap. Within 24 hours, an estimated 250,000 people walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, using a broad promenade above the roadway that John Roebling designed solely for the enjoyment of pedestrians.
The Brooklyn Bridge, with its unprecedented length and two stately towers, was dubbed the "eighth wonder of the world." The connection it provided between the massive population centers of Brooklyn and Manhattan changed the course of New York City forever. In 1898, the city of Brooklyn formally merged with New York City, Staten Island, and a few farm towns, forming Greater New York.
Some facts about the Brooklyn Bridge:
- Carries Motor vehicles (cars only)
- Elevated trains (until 1944)
- Streetcars (until 1950)
- Pedestrians and bicycles
- Crosses East River
- Locale New York City (Manhattan–Brooklyn)
- Maintained by New York City Department of Transportation
- Designer John Augustus Roebling
- Design Suspension/Cable-stay Hybrid
- Total length 5,989 feet (1825 m)
- Width 85 feet (26 m)
- Height 276.5 ft. (84.3 m) above mean high water
- Longest span 1,595 feet 6 inches (486.3 m)
- Clearance below 135 feet (41 m) at mid-span
- Opened May 24, 1883; 130 years ago
- Toll Free both ways
- Daily traffic 123,781 (2008)
- Coordinates 40.70569°N 73.99639°
Since its opening 4,194 people have jumped from the Brooklyn Bridge. The first person to jump from the bridge was Robert Emmet Odlum, brother of women's rights activist Charlotte Odlum Smith, on May 19, 1885. He struck the water at an angle and died shortly thereafter from internal injuries. Steve Brodie was the most famous jumper, or self-proclaimed jumper (in 1886). Cartoonist Otto Eppers jumped and survived in 1910, and was then tried and acquitted for attempted suicide.
Currently about every 15 days someone has committed suicide by jumping off Brooklyn Bridge. They have been trying to make a suicide barrier but they couldn't because of cost and engineering difficulties.
And of course on of the most famous quips when debating someone unclear or ignoring the facts of the argument is: “there is a bridge in Brooklyn that I can sell you.”
I’ve written blogs about The Men who Built America and The Greatest Generations but have not included John Roebling in either. There are many more men and women who built this great nation. Some had formal technical educations while others were self-educated. But the four things they all had in common was their entrepreneurial spirit, a no quit attitude, the ability to get up and dust themselves off after set-backs and the love of this country. They all saw America as a land of great opportunity based on liberty where a person cold pursue their dream regardless of class or heritage of birth. This is something that our current generations should be made more aware of.
(Please note that all pictures may be enlarged by clicking on the image)