John Augustus Roebling: Brooklyn Bridge Visionary


John Augustus Roebling: Brooklyn Bridge Visionary

John Augustus Roebling PortraitEvery once in a while, it is important for us to pause and consider how some of the most iconic American infrastructure achievements came to be. In the case of the Brooklyn Bridge—the very first steel-wire suspension bridge every constructed—we must thank John Augustus Roebling. A German immigrant, he came to the United States in 1831 and is now known for his prolific contributions to suspension bridge architecture across the country.

Roebling: Early Life & Education

Roebling was born Johann August Robling on June 12, 1806 in Mühlhausen, in what was then the Kingdom of Prussia. When Roebling was a child, his mother deftly picked up on his great artistic talent. She had him privately tutored in mathematics and science starting at the age of 15.

Throughout his late teens and early twenties, he studied architecture, civil engineering, bridge-building, hydraulics and many other infrastructure-related subjects. He began sketching suspension bridges in 1825.

Due to the political and economic unrest in Europe at the time, Roebling could see no real career in infrastructure or civil engineering anywhere in the region, so he and his brother Carl decided to immigrate to the United States in 1831. The U.S. was in the tail end of an economic boom, and transportation improvements were about to become very important.

Early Career Shifts

Interestingly enough, when the Roeblings first got to the U.S., they bought 1,582 acres of land in Butler County, Pennsylvania and set about establishing a German settlement called Saxonburg. Instead of engineering, Roebling began farming. However, the colony did not take off very well and John Augustus Roebling Wire Rope AdRoebling grew tired of farming, so after his brother died in 1837, he returned to engineering.
For three years, Roebling surveyed for railway lines across the Allegheny Mountains in Pennsylvania. Engineers used a long loop of seven centimeter-thick hemp rope to pull railroad cars up and down the inclines. This rope was expensive, but short-lived, so Roebling developed a more effective seven-strand wire rope on his land.

After he tried his hand at some early suspension bridges and aqueducts in Pennsylvania, he moved to Trenton, New Jersey. Here he built a large industrial complex to produce the wire rope he invented. This complex inspired the Trenton, New Jersey motto on Trenton’s Lower Trenton Bridge: “Trenton Makes–The World Takes.”

Bridge Construction

Roebling’s next project, in 1851, was a railroad bridge to connect the New York Central and Great Western Railway of Canada over the Niagara River. 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.

“The sight of a moving train held aloft above the great gorge at Niagara by so delicate a contrivance was, in the 1860’s, nothing short of miraculous. The bridge seemed to defy the most fundamental laws of nature. Something so slight just naturally ought to give way beneath anything so heavy. That it did not seemed pure magic.”

—David McCullough, “The Great Bridge”

While workers built the Niagara bridge, Roebling began design and construction of a railway suspension bridge across the Kentucky River. It was the first cantilever bridge in the U.S., with a truss for carrying the railway track.

In 1863, he began building a bridge over the Ohio River, connecting Cincinnati, Ohio to Covington, Kentucky. The Cincinnati-Covington Bridge—later named the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge—was the world’s longest suspension bridge at the time.

The Brooklyn Bridge

In 1867, Roebling began the design work on the Brooklyn Bridge, spanning the East River in New York. On June 28, 1869 at Fulton Ferry, he stood at the edge of a dock, taking compass readings, when his foot was crushed between some pilings and a boat. Doctors amputated his injured toes, but he refused any more medical attention.

Roebling decided to cure his foot by “water therapy”—continuous pouring of water over the wound. His condition deteriorated quickly. Tragically, on July 22, 1869, just 24 days after the accident, he died of tetanus at his son’s home in Brooklyn Heights.

In 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge was completed. Journalist James Wolcott described the bridge as “a drive-through cathedral”. It soon became one of New York’s noblest and most recognized landmarks. The bridge stretches 1,595 feet over the East River, connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn.John Augustus Roebling Brooklyn Bridge

Recognition of a Pioneer

Though it took a while for early travelers to warm up to the new, giant bridges that Roebling was instrumental in creating, we now hail him as a pioneer and a visionary in U.S. bridge construction.

“You drive over to Suspension Bridge, and divide your misery between the chances of smashing down two hundred into the river below, and the chances of having a railway-train overhead smashing down onto you. Either possibility is discomforting taken by itself, but, mixed together, they amount in the aggregate to positive unhappiness.”

–Mark Twain

Roebling became one of the leading suspension bridge builders in the U.S. History remembers him as the visionary architect of the Brooklyn Bridge, which is a National Historic Landmark and a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. That and his other famous achievement, the Cincinnati-Covington Bridge, are testaments to his imagination and technical skills.

Nisha Katti

About Nisha Katti

Nisha Katti is BlueTone's Marketing Coordinator. She specializes in content writing and social media management, among other activities. Nisha is a native of Atlanta, yet her heart will always lie with the magnificent magnolias of Athens, Georgia, where she attended the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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