Brooklyn Bridge 3
Career, Engineering, Sarah

A Bridge over New Waters

After 6 weeks travelling for work and pleasure I have finally made it home to Edinburgh where I have been greeted with sideways rain.  Always a pleasure Scotland! When I travel I love hearing peoples stories, as well as visiting all the tourist traps and architectural/engineering wonders that I can find. It really helps me produce a complete view of that place.  So it was with great pleasure that I learned about the amazing woman behind the Brooklyn Bridge when I visited New York a few years ago.

Sarah and The Brooklyn Bridge
Sarah and The Brooklyn Bridge

Many of you have probably heard of Emily Warren Roebling before, but for those who haven’t (and I hadn’t until my trip to New York) this post gives a brief account of Emily and her contribution to the Brooklyn Bridge.

Emily was born in New York State in 1843 and was the second youngest of 12 children.  During the American Civil War in 1864 Emily went off to visit her brother where she became acquainted with Washington Roebling, an engineer serving on her brothers staff.  It was here that Emily and Washington immediately fell in love and they married in January 1865.

Emily Roebling

Meanwhile Washington’s father John A Roebling was busy planning a bridge over New York’s East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan.  After the Civil War Emily and Washington travelled to Europe to research technical issues related to the bridge, in particular the use of caissons during construction.

From here on in, it was unfortunately tragedy that drove Emily to the forefront of engineering, further than any female had been before.  Upon their return from Europe John Roebling died of tetanus, leaving Washington in charge of the project.  Washington was very hands on and involved himself in all aspects of the bridge’s construction.  It was as a result of this that he contracted caissons disease.  The OHS policy/procedure for the construction of the bridge, and where it sits in the development of engineering OH&S, is worthy of it’s own post so I may save that for later!

Brooklyn Bridge 2
Brooklyn Bridge

As a result of caissons disease Washington was confined to his bed so to ensure the Roebling’s continued to lead the project Emily stepped up.  She took copious notes of what remained to be done, and began studies of technical issues, leaning about material strengths, stress analysis, cable construction, and calculation of catenary curves.  Every day Emily went to site to check the previous days work, convey Washington’s instructions and answer any questions.  She became in effect the first female field engineer.

Brooklyn Bridge
Brooklyn Bridge

For the next 14 years Emily took over most of the chief engineers responsibilities.  Along with her husband she jointly planned the continued construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.  There were daily inspections, supervision of on site personnel, politicians to deal with, competing engineers to fend off, records to be kept, mail to be answered and social functions to attend! The bridge was completed in 1883 and today holds a plaque dedicated to the memory of Emily, her husband and her father-in-law.

I see Emily Roebling as an inspiration, someone who through hardship, tragedy and determination, undertook self-learning to design, supervise and project manage one of the worlds most recognisable bridges that to this day still carries traffic between Manhattan and Brooklyn.  She is an exponent of continued learning, also obtaining a law degree from New York University.

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