Essentially all of us have seen images of the Brooklyn Bridge and some have walked or driven over it. Let’s consider the persistent family effort that brought this iconic bridge to reality (Fredrich 1989, Weingardt 2005).
The Roebling Family Story
For decades, the idea of the bridge, like many creative/innovative engineering ideas, was widely dismissed as impossible. Challenges to crossing New York City’s East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn included deep water and severe weather that moved up the river from the Atlantic Ocean. However, if anyone could get the job done, engineer John A. Roebling could.
He completed overall plans in1865. At about that time, John Roebling sent Washington, his just-married son and, Emily, his new daughter-in-law, to Europe and around the world to study deep-water caisson foundations. The senior Roebling invested the next four years in getting support for the project from city, state, and federal officials.
Unfortunately, as construction began in 1869 and Washington and Emily Roebling returned home, the family experienced the first of a pair of disasters. John Roebling died as the result of an accident at one of the bridge’s abutments. Exemplifying family spirit, engineer Washington Roebling took over as chief engineer and his wife helped with labor, materials, political, and public relations challenges. Emily Roebling also began to study civil engineering topics including mathematics, strength of materials, catenary curves, and cable and bridge construction. The seeds of these studies would soon bear great fruit.
In 1872, three years into what would be a 13-year project, Washington Roebling, who was a hands-on professional, suffered caisson disease leaving him paralyzed, partly blind, deaf, and usually unable to speak. He and his wife were determined to persist and complete the family bridge project. Washington used binoculars to watch construction progress from his bedroom window on the Brooklyn side of the river while Emily visited the site daily to observe details and deliver and receive messages. She gradually took on increased responsibilities such as dealing with construction workers, material suppliers, assistant engineers, and public officials. Functionally, Emily Roebling became the chief engineer. The Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883.
The Roeblings moved on with the ailing John being involved in the family’s cable business and Emily, in addition to being a wife and a mother to their son, John, taking on many new endeavors and challenges. For example, she earned a law degree, was a much-in-demand speaker, wrote many articles, traveled worldwide, and championed various causes. She wrote her husband’s biography, which barely describes her own role in building the bridge but lauds the contributions of her husband and the assistant engineers.
Our Family Stories
Perhaps learning about the role of family in the design and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge causes us to reflect on the family support we have and continue to receive in our engineering endeavors. In my case, my parents encouraged me to study anything I wanted in college (“just do your best”), helped pay for my engineering education, and offered encouragement during and after college. My wife has been my Emily, always there such as getting us through graduate school, proofing my writing, moving to new places, and providing encouragement when some of my professional endeavors failed or were set back. My in-laws were helpful (although at times concerned that their son-in-law would never finish graduate school and get a real job). Our children were supportive by understanding when work prevented me from being at some of their events.
You, too, have had similar experiences and have been markedly helped by family in your career. Perhaps all of us ought to say thank you again.
Fredrich, A. J. (Editor). 1989. Sons of Martha: Civil Engineering Readings in Modern Literature, American Society of Civil Engineers, New York, NY.
Weingardt, R. G. 2005. Engineering Legends: Great American Civil Engineers, ASCE Press, Reston, VA.
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