Thursday, 21 August 2014
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This week in 1883: Opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, New York

The Engineer gave a detailed report of both the engineering behind the bridge that began the architectural transformation of New York and the tragic circumstances of its construction.

Today the Brooklyn Bridge sits perfectly against the backdrop of skyscrapers that form the New York City skyline. But when the bridge was completed in 1883, New York was a very different place and the imposing neo-gothic structure towered above the low-rise dwellings and warehouses of Brooklyn and Manhattan, as pictures published in The Engineer at the time show.

In some ways, the bridge’s construction was the start of the architectural transformation of the already heavily populated settlements either side of the East River into what would become the world’s most famous city.

The Engineer, of course, recorded the technical specifications of the bridge: its 274-foot (84m) height, its 5,989-foot (1,825m) length, its £3m cost and the 6,928,346 lb (3,142,645kg) of wire that formed the four cables running the length of the bridge from which hung both suspension cables and cable stays.

But the report of the bridge’s opening on 24 May also noted the series of tragedies that befell the structure’s engineers and builders. The first ‘victim’ was the bridge’s designer, German immigrant John Augustus Roebling, whose foot was crushed during the work and who then contracted and died of tetanus (referred to as lockjaw) in 1869.

His son, Washington A Roebling, then continued construction but was himself incapacitated by what was known as “caisson disease”, decompression sickness caused by too quickly emerging from the watertight chambers (caissons) used to work on the bridge’s foundations.

The Engineer went on to describe the unpleasant details of the condition. ‘The blood is driven in from the exterior and soft parts of the body to the central organs, especially the brain and spinal cord,’ it reported.

‘On emerging into the open air, violent neuralgic pains and sometimes paralysis follow. Dr Andrew H Smith, surgeon to the Bridge Company reported 11 cases of the “caisson disease,” of which three were presently, and probably more finally, fatal.’

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The article then described how the bridge combined two systems of cross-beam girders – a principal set suspended by the cables and a lighter set to give additional support – at right angles to six parallel trusses extending the entire length of the bridge and further united by small longitudinal trusses and a complete system of diagonal braces.

‘It will be seen, thus, that this combination has immense strength, weight, and stiffness, laterally, vertically, and in every direction. To relieve the cables in some measure of this enormous burden, and at the same time effectually prevent any vertical oscillations in the bridge floor, there is a multitude of suspensory stays of steel wire ropes diverging from the tops of the towers to points about 15ft. apart along the bottom of the four vertical trusses.’

To read the full article from 1883 click here.


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