Today, a story about bridges and kinship. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
John Roebling designed the
Brooklyn Bridge, but his foot was crushed near the
site in 1869 -- just after construction began. He
died of tetanus a month later, and his son,
Washington, was left to build the bridge. Then
Washington Roebling was paralyzed by the bends when
he came up too many times from the high-pressure
air in the subsurface foundations. Actually,
Washington's wife, Emily Roebling, finally became
the on-site director. She finished the bridge while
she alone consulted with her crippled husband.
The Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, and it stands
as a monument to many things: to the determination
of the Roebling family, to beauty in design, to
19th-century ironwork, and especially to John
Roebling, who figured out how to make modern
Bridges had been suspended from iron chains for
2000 years. But the idea of spinning a wire cable
right in place over a river -- adding a few strands
in each pass -- was very new and very radical. It
all began in 1841, when John Roebling, then a wire
cable manufacturer, wrote an article on building
bridges that way. A competitor first built such a
bridge before Roebling did. But when Roebling built
this kind of suspension bridge over the Allegheny
River, he began a remarkable career of
John Roebling's next bridge spanned the Delaware
River between New York and Pennsylvania. It was one
of four bridges he built as part of the
Delaware/Hudson canal system. It opened in 1847, 36
years before the Brooklyn Bridge, and it's still in
service. This so-called Delaware Aqueduct Bridge
emerges out of the trees on either side of the
river. Its four sections span 535 feet. It's narrow
by today's standards, but it's the only
river-crossing for fifteen miles in either
direction. Its massive piers support the delicate
wound cables, and they're anchored deep in the
earth on either side.
This bridge is, in fact, the oldest wound cable
bridge that still survives intact. And it plays
fitting counterpoint to Roebling's last crowning
glory in Brooklyn.
Both bridges enjoy a kind of organic symbiosis with
the world around them. The Brooklyn Bridge is so
much a creature of the city. The aging Delaware
Aqueduct Bridge, with its wooden planking and
grass-grown moorings, seemed until recently to flow
out of the wilderness and back into it. But today
it's been restored into a vehicle-carrying bridge.
These two bridges tell a tale of kinship. Kinship
of concept and execution, kinship of father and
son, and finally the all-important kinship of
function and art.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Vogel, R.M., Roebling's Delaware and Hudson
Canal Aqueducts. Wash- ington, D.C.:
Smithsonian Institution Press, 1971.
Vogel, R.M., Building Brooklyn Bridge: The
Design and Construction, 1867-1883.
Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press,
Vogel, R.M., Designing Brooklyn Bridge.
Annals of the New York Academy of
Sciences, Vol. 421, pp. 3-39.
I am most grateful to Allen Swerdlowe, an architect
working out of New York City, for his advice.
Swerdlowe did the restoration of the Delaware
Aqueduct Bridge between 1983 and 1987 while working
for the Beyer Blinder Belle Architectural Firm.
Photo courtesy of Robert
The Delaware Aqueduct
Photo courtesy of Robert
Cable Saddles for the Delaware Aqueduct
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Stereopticon image courtesy of
And Roebling's last and most famous work,
The Brooklyn Bridge
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