Six archive snapshots from the history of bridges

The Engineer recently revisited some of the finest tunnelling achievements to grace its pages down through the years, and this week we bring you a collection of articles where the focus is another engineering mainstay: bridges.

From iconic spans in some of the world’s greatest cities to Victorian plans for crossing the Channel, the history of bridges has been captured in the publication since its earliest days. Naturally, The Engineer has also had a responsibility to report on bridging failures, and these too have achieved prominence in the archive over the decades. And it is, unfortunately, with an infamous bridge disaster that we begin our journey.

January 1880: The aftermath of the Tay Bridge Disaster

history of bridges

The collapse of the Tay Bridge in late December 1879 occurred as a train was crossing in the midst of a violent storm. Sir Thomas Bauch, the engineer behind the bridge, is believed to have omitted any leeway for wind loading in its design. Gusts on the night are thought to have reached around 80mph, ultimately causing the cast iron structure to fail. Up to 75 people are estimated to have lost their lives though only 46 bodies were recovered. Bauch died within a year of the tragedy and his proposed design for the Forth Bridge was consigned forever to the drawing board.


May 1883: Opening of the Brooklyn Bridge

history of bridges

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.

September 1885: The Forth Bridge

history of bridges
(Credit: Simon Johnston via CC)

Still an emblem of British engineering excellence to this day, the Forth Bridge stretches for 2km some 46m above the Firth of Forth. In the wake of the Tay Bridge disaster no expense was spared, and construction costs came in at £3m – a staggering figure for the time. It’s a chastening reminder of the conditions endured in the Victorian age that the project carried a high human cost, with more than 60 workers losing their lives during the build.


January 1893: The cross-channel bridge

history of bridges

While today the prospect of a bridge that crosses the sea and dissects one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes is almost inconceivable, back in 1893 many considered the idea a far more realistic proposition than a tunnel. Indeed, just a couple of years earlier, one of the many early attempts to dig a tunnel linking the UK and France had been abandoned in the face of fears that enemies could use it to mount an attack.


August 1936: The cables of the Golden Gate Bridge

history of bridges

Widely acknowledged as the world’s most famous bridge, the Golden Gate is a symbol of San Francisco and one of its biggest tourist attractions. The bridge had been under construction since January 1933, and by the time a three-part feature appeared in The Engineer across July and August of 1936, the structure was nearing completion. Parts I and II had looked at the design, excavations and pier-building that the Golden Gate required, but the final instalment focused on the cabling operation of the giant suspension bridge.


November 1940: The collapse of the Tacoma Narrows bridge

history of bridges
(Credit: Barney Elliott; The Camera Shop via CC)

We’ve already looked at the Galloping Gertie in our roundup of engineering disasters, but we felt she deserved another run-out in our bridges ‘Hall of Fame’. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which (briefly!) spanned the Puget Sound in the US State of Washington, opened in July of 1940. Just five months later it was to suffer a catastrophic collapse, with the iconic video footage becoming synonymous with engineering failure.

July 2016: 160 years of bridges in The Engineer

We’ve given you six snapshots from the archives to provide a glimpse into the history of bridges in this publication. However, last year, as part of the publication’s 160th-anniversary celebrations, The Engineer took a more concerted view at over a century and a half of bridge technology. That article can be viewed in its entirety below.

Troubled waters, troubled projects