Tech Life A work of bare utility

The Makers of Things

Brooklyn Bridge

In the late 1800s, the Brooklyn Bridge was built with no power tools, no heavy machinery, and only a basic, evolving understanding of how to make steel. It’s not these facts, but the stories surrounding the facts that inspire me when I take a good, long stare at a suspension bridge. But first…

Brooklyn Bridge Wires

Stunning.

In a good bridge, I see the defiant end result of how some of my favorite engineering stories begin:

  • “I’m sure you can arrange an impressive line of people who say it’s impossible. I take personal joy in ignoring those who say no.”
  • “Yes, halfway through this project we’ll discover the impossible, but we know how to build through the impossible. Impossible is when we do our best work.”
  • “Trust me when I say that I can close my eyes and see the end result, and when you can see it, too, you will be amazed.”

Ignore the No. When Brooklyn and New York’s population was booming at the end of the 19th century, the best way to get to and from Brooklyn was via ferries. As solutions were considered, I’m sure there were those who simply thought, “More boats!” These ardent defenders of the status quo were not engineers — they were the business. Their goal was not to build something great, but to make a profit.

It was an engineer named John Roebling who proposed a suspension bridge. We take bridges for granted now, but back in the 1800s, bridges were in beta. They fell. One out of every four bridges… fell. He convinced them by designing a bridge half again as big as any before it that was six times stronger than he estimated it need to be. Roebling designed the complete specification for the bridge in a mere three months and then died of tetanus from an injury he received surveying the bridge site.

Discover the impossible. Both of the towers of the Brooklyn Bridge are in the water of the East River. Ever wonder how you dig a big hole in the bottom of a river bed? In the late 1800s? It’s called a caisson, which is a huge, watertight wooden box half the size of a city block. This monstrosity was constructed on the river, sealed with pine tar, and carefully floated to a specific location on the river. It was then slowly sunk to the riverbed by placing stone on top that would eventually become the foundation.

Done, right?

Wrong. With the caisson on the riverbed, it’s time to push it another 45 feet into the riverbed in search of bedrock. Workers did this through the continued application of stone to the top while workers in the caisson dug out the riverbed with shovels, buckets, and, when necessary, dynamite. There was nothing resembling an electrical grid, so there was nothing resembling modern lighting in this watertight pine-tarred box, which was slowly descending through the floor of the East River. There were no jack hammers, so when they hit rock, they used small amounts of dynamite to crack these rocks. In a pine-tarred box, at the bottom of a river, mostly in a very wet dark.

And when the caisson finally hit bedrock 45 feet underground, they had to do it all over again for the New York tower. 30 feet deeper.

You will be amazed. With his father killed via an accident early in the surveying process, it was Washington Roebling, John’s son, who was chief engineer. He did the balance of this work bedridden in Brooklyn Heights, suffering from caisson disease, which he acquired working in the caisson as it descended into the New York-side of the East River. It’s not technically a disease; it’s decompression sickness or the bends, and it forced him to monitor all of the work from a window in his bedroom. He relayed detailed instructions via his wife, Emily, who effectively managed a cadre of politicians, competing engineers, and anyone else working on the bridge for over a decade.

As the New York caisson descended further than its Brooklyn counterpart, the incidents of the bends increased, killing two men. With no bedrock in sight, Roebling used his knowledge of geology and mineralogy to make an amazing decision: stop digging. It wasn’t bedrock, but it was compacted sand.

The New York tower. 78 feet deep into the riverbed. Resting on sand. It hasn’t moved.

We Are Defined By What We Build

The Brooklyn Bridge was built from 1870 until 1883. A quick history refresher: five years after we finished shooting each other in the American Civil War, we started building this:

Brooklyn Bridge Afar

Three years after that, work started on another:

Williamsburgh Afar

And before the Williamsburg Bridge was even done, work started on the Manhattan Bridge:

Manhattan Afar

These are the words and the stories I hear in the Brooklyn Bridge: enthusiasm, audacity, impossibility, and amazement. More importantly, I see a work of bare utility with a palpable sense of confidence, an equilibrium with nature, and a beauty that only grows with time.

We are defined by what we build. It’s not just the engineering ambition that designed these structures, nor the 20 people who died building the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s that we believe we can and decide to act. I’m happy to report our new President agrees when he says,

“In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.”

Someone, sometime soon is going to start describing the climb out of this impressive hole we’ve dug for ourselves, and they’re going to call it “America 2.0”. Clever, yes. We need a new version of ourselves and that’s going to involve bright, unexpected ideas from those we least expect them from, and they’re going to strike you as impossible. All you need to do to understand these terrifyingly ambitious ideas is to look back at what we’ve already done to understand what we can do.

Brooklyn Bridge Symmetry

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61 Responses

  1. Aaron Davies 7 years ago

    Can America 2.0 please include the ability to actually build things in reasonable amounts of time? The Empire State Building went up in barely more than a year, in the middle of Depression 1.0; the “Freedom Tower” proudly passed ground level last month, four years and counting after the cornerstone laying, which was already unforgivably late.

  2. I *had* to comment on this and just say.. Wow.

    It really starts to put into perspective the things we take for granted.

    Thanks.

  3. A phenomenally inspiring post. In my opinion, certainly in the UK, we just don’t aim high enough. I’m currently working on an ambitious application and quite a few people I talk to are pessimistic about the possibility of success. If anything, this spurs me on even more as I know that what I’m trying to do is ambitious enough.

    One curious attitude I have towards my project is a skepticism that it can be done well, which means I’m paying extra close attention to all the things that could mean it will fail. Hopefully this will mean I don’t become arrogant about my idea and I keep it real and down to earth.

    Thanks again for a wonderful post. It’s reminded me why I’m shooting for something amazing.

  4. Truly inspiring. Thank you for this.

  5. Paul Fisher 7 years ago

    I think it’s also worth mentioning Cincinnati’s Roebling suspension bridge—a kind of “trial run” for the Brooklyn Bridge, and a record-breaking bridge at its completion—got similar opposition before its construction. But that could just be because I’m a nerd from Cincinnati.

    Great stuff to think about.

  6. greg.org 7 years ago

    Great story. The kid [5yo] and I have been reading about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge in an awesome exhibition catalogue from the 100th anniversary of the Bridge, in 1983. Bought it at the library discarded book sale for $1.

    The photos of NYC with the bridge under construction are just incredible and filled with optimism–the idea that some day the thin wires stretching between these stone towers might actually support roads and trains.

    I imagine it was a particularly inspiring and audacious message for 1983, too, when NYC was a busted, crime-ridden, ghetto, and when people were making movies about the difficulty of getting home from Manhattan to Brooklyn in one piece.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0080120/

  7. Eric the Red 7 years ago

    “We take bridges for granted now, but back in the 1800s, bridges were in beta. They fell”

    Gee, someone should go back in time and tell the Romans and Chinese these.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bridge#History

    Oh, wait, I forget that for Americans history starts some 200-300 years ago and concerns only things that happened on their continent. And only Americans can read the second half of the previous sentence without doing a double take.

  8. Sundeep 7 years ago

    Brilliant Article.

    Thank you !

  9. Chris 7 years ago

    Thank you for this. I will be reading about bridges for the rest of the afternoon, no doubt. 🙂

  10. Thanks for a great post Rands. Been a long-time reader and a big fan.

    Think you might like ‘The Psychology of Murder’ – novel set around the time of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and which features caissons.

    Keep it up!

    Nick

  11. Wonderful article. Sharing it all around.

  12. If only politicians thought like engineers. Or maybe we could get some engineers to run for congress…

  13. Many thanks for this wonderful post.

    I recently saw the excellent documentary by Ken Burns on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, which was great. And you, to your credit, have pulled the core inspirational heart of that tale to the foreground.

    Timely indeed.

  14. The_Prof 7 years ago

    @Eric: OK, so let’s be nitpicky, and say ‘metal bridges.’ Or maybe just ‘anything but simple bridges.’

    Note the Tay bridge collapse , in Scotland, in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge project. Or how about the Yarmouth Bridge? The Angers Bridge? Or any of the others listed in Wikipedia’s list of bridge disasters?

    No, bridge engineering was anything but a solved art. And this was just as true outside the U.S. as inside.

  15. @Eric: Grow up.

  16. Brilliant writeup. I wish I had better words to express myself, but your style of writing would totally pwn mine 🙂

  17. Surly 7 years ago

    I’ve always been amazed by the story of the Brooklyn Bridge.

    When I got to visit it, to walk it and admire the spectacle and history, I couldn’t help but think it was very poorly maintained. Half the paint seemed to missing, rust in its place, neglected, decaying. I had to wonder if its lifespan was being compromised, I don’t know for sure either way.

    Then I thought, “typically American” 🙂

  18. kellyp 7 years ago

    thanks

  19. I say nay to profit and budgetary restraint, and yea to greatness. Our debt-saddled progenitors will be remunerated beyond measure.

  20. Benjamin Garrett 7 years ago

    Great post!

  21. Wonderful.

    Thank you for this.

  22. Ned Deily 7 years ago

    Great essay! Roebling was truly an engineer’s engineer. If the Brooklyn Bridge was beta, this was alpha. Begun in 1848 as a canal viaduct across the Delaware River between NE Pennsylvania and New York, it remains today as the oldest existing wire suspension bridge in the US. After the canal business dried up, Roebling’s viaduct was converted to vehicular use. Amazingly, it was one of the very few bridges along the upper Delaware to withstand Hurricane Diana in 1955. It is still in use today, now maintained by the National Park Service. What will be our engineering legacies in 150 years?

  23. Masterful writing, sir. Thank you.

  24. Great post Michael. The Brooklyn Bridge is a truly beautiful suspension bridge and something that one should take the time to walk if in NYC. While you’re at it stop at Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn for some pizza.

    @greg.org +1 for linking to The Warriors!

  25. Coridyn 7 years ago

    “The Seven Wonders of the Industrial World” is a brilliant BBC docu-drama series that covers the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and other amazing international engineering projects:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Wonders_of_the_Industrial_World

    I highly recommend it for anyone interested in audacious engineering and inspiring achievments.

  26. Fantastic article Rands.

    “We are defined by what we build.” is now on my wall.

  27. Chris Saenger 7 years ago

    Thanks Rands. Jose Marti’s 1883 essay on the Brooklyn Bridge is well worth in this context. It’s one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing. Marti is one of the cultural heavyweights of Cuba and was living in New York as the bridge was built. He provides almost encyclopedic detail on the construction methods, the number of miles of steel cable in the bridge, how tall the towers are, etc. But he also offers lyrical, hopeful, and sometimes portentous observations, like those in the concluding paragraph, that seem to fit nicely with the mood of your post:

    “Thus they have built it and thus it stands, the monumental structure, less beautiful than grand, like a ponderous arm of the human mind. No longer are deep trenches dug around embattled fortresses; now cities embrace one another with arms of steel. No longer do sentry posts manned by soldiers guard populations; now there are booths with employees bearing neither spear nor rifle who collect the penny of peace from the laborers that go past. Bridges are the fortresses of the modern world. Better to bring cities together than to cleave human chests. Today, all men are called upon to be soldiers of the bridge.”

  28. No power tools? You have to be kidding. How about the powered boats that were used throughout construction? The steam engines that fed compressed air to the caissons and hauled material out? The machinery that lifted and placed blocks? Not to mention the machinery that manufactured the cables and other materials, the trains that delivered them, and so on.

  29. Billy 7 years ago

    With regards to project timelines of today vs. yesteryear, the bridge essay reminds of the TVA projects done here in TN: like Douglas and Fontana Hydroplants, built on crash schedules (11 months for Douglas) to support the war effort. You have to respect the prowess and the sacrifice of the engineers, and laborforce, of the past.

  30. Wonderful post, except for one thing that shocked me. In an essay on people who make things you quoted a politician. Politicians don’t make things, they are parasites on those who do. Yuck!

  31. That was a great story. Well-told, inspirational. And great pictures. I like the idea that America 2.0 will involved faster building….but I don’t believe it. We can put together websites quickly which ultimately, might be more important this year.

  32. filip 7 years ago

    A power tool is a tool powered by an electric motor… hence the name power tool.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_tools

  33. Your words inspire as much if not more than our President. At least in my case. Thanks for reminding me about how things get done and to remember the importance and worth of my/our labor.

  34. Kaleberg 7 years ago

    My favorite story along this line is that of the moving of the Vatican obelisk, perhaps a few hundred feet to the center of the great plaza that would be built around it. The 16th century engineering drawings survive, along with the competing plans, and in its day the project was a major shot in the arm for Europe. Of course, the Romans had hauled the damned thing across the Mediterranean from Alexandria, and the Egyptians had hauled it from the quarries miles upriver, but a few hundred feet was a serious challenge in re-emerging Europe.

    P.S. When the World Trade Center fell, I knew that nothing would be rebuilt while George W. Bush was in office. The likes of Bush could only sow salt.

  35. You had me until you quoted Obama.

  36. Robin 7 years ago

    Inspiring, but how do you know you arent like the others and destined to fall?

    I guess it depends if you want to get the job done or you thirst for glory (in this case at the expense of lives)

  37. Byron Sonne 7 years ago

    If someone actually calls it “America 2.0” then I will fucking kill myself.

    Enough of the stupid names already, folks.

  38. Just writing to drop a quick “‘grats” to Rands for showing up on Slashdot. Oh yeah, didn’t he write some kind of book a while ago? 😉

    Regarding these comments…wow, things have changed in the past few years.

  39. And damnit Rands, you made me sniffle. Internally.

  40. Great essay! The Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge has a still-standing prototype in Waco, Texas. You can read about it here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waco_Suspension_Bridge

  41. Perun 7 years ago

    Or you could just do America 1.0 again, try reading your own constitution, it still is unparallel so far as a know. It seems America is now at the same spot that ancient Rome was when it switched from a republic to one man rule and a blind faith in his powers to make them great.

  42. Duane 7 years ago

    Great story.

    For much more info, insight, and details see “Great Bridge” by David McCullough. It is done well and covers the Roebling Family from making steel wire and the early bridges through completion of the Brooklyn Bridge. A great read as examples of determination and leadership.

  43. Enjoyed the post!

    You mention a “new version of ourselves” in regards to getting the country out of the mess that it is in. Are we not always creating new versions of ourselves?

  44. Rands (Michael) – you are a mentor to me that, in a non-digital world, would never have happened.

    Thank you for this inspirational post.

  45. And then there was the Sydney Harbour Bridge – revolutionary in it’s time – and an economic saviour in the Great Depression!

  46. CHRIS 7 years ago

    awesome writeup! thanks for my new favorite blog

  47. Rands,

    If you find this inspiring, I suggest you read Steven Ambrose’s book “Nothing Like It In The World” — it’s the story of the construction of the transcontinental railway. It’s full of brilliant engineering, dying designers, thieving businessmen and a cast of thousands of men who built that railway with shovels, pick axes, dynamite and muscle. It’s probably the last of the great construction projects done almost entirely without power assistance. It, too, was completed just shortly after the US Civil War.

  48. Love this.

  49. Scott Thourson 7 years ago

    I was listening to a conversation between a few engineering students about creativity and engineering. They argued that creativity is something not necessarily needed in engineering, but it helps. Personally, I don’t see what engineering is without creativity. When you look at accomplishments like this and the other master pieces of the world, it’s evident. Every situation is new, different, challenging, and requires a different approach. It is great to read events like this to gain hindsight on how we got there and how we got here; it should give us all hope.

  50. Amazing story. Posted on my facebook profile.

    I always love stories where people are proven wrong when they only think that only one solution (the obvious one) is available.

  51. “It has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things.”

  52. Terri J. 7 years ago

    Impressive writing. Not many blogs have the capacity to bring tears to my eyes, but yours just did. My daughter’s class is studying the Brooklyn Bridge, and they are visiting it on a walking trip today. It is my hope that one day she will be able to view this testament to the human spirit as much more than a mere homework assignment.

    There aren’t many things in this life that can give jaded adults even a moment of that childlike wonder that so many of us lost long ago. So, thank you for opening my eyes just a little wider today.

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  55. I saw the episode of Big Bigger Biggest where they discussed the Brooklyn Bridge, but your article has re-awakened the sense of amazement I felt then. Thanks so much.

  56. whoah this weblog is wonderful i like reading your posts. Keep up the good paintings! You realize, lots of people are searching around for this info, you can help them greatly.

  57. Engineering of today is way too far from the engineering before. But the way engineers construct buildings is very commendable.

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  58. These were really unique and fabulous photos. I was also impressed on the way it was constructed. It is tough to plan for the motivation of the bridges.

  59. Brittany King 5 years ago

    I had a writing prompt that asked me to use wire suspension bridges as a metaphor for life. I googled “wire suspension bridges” for images to inspire me and I came across your page. Thank you for sharing this. It was an excellent read and a great inspiration for my journal today.

  60. Stunning images. Brooklyn bridge would have so many stories to tell if it could speak. Think of all of the time and history that has revolved around it. Just amazing.

  61. This is such an amazing story of human ingenuity and persistence told in a compelling and fun way.

    I see the bridge everyday and marvel at what we’re capable of as humans. It’s also a miracle that the New York tower is just sitting there in wet sand and it hasn’t sunk further into the ground.

    We’ve got to look at these great *functional* monuments of the past and strive to continue making some more of the same.