Roebling, John Augustus

views updated May 29 2018


John Augustus Roebling (18061869) came to the United States and created in New York what has become one of the nation's best-known and earliest examples of suspension bridges, the Brooklyn Bridge.

John Roebling was born in Prussia in 1806. He received an excellent formal education and graduated in 1826 with a degree in civil engineering from the Royal Polytechnic Institute in Berlin. As a practicing civil engineer, Roebling was dissatisfied with the simple road building projects available in his homeland at that time. He set his eyes elsewhere in search of more challenging work.

His search ended in the United States, where Roebling and his brother emigrated and established a 7,000-acre agricultural community in western Pennsylvania. Roebling was an unsuccessful farmer and found himself returning to his civil engineering interests and the building opportunities available in the United States.

He saw in his new country an opportunity to achieve the realization of his philosophical ideal of harmony. Creating order out of chaos was foremost in Roebling's life. The many bridge building projects he led, pioneering the design of the suspension bridge, were an extension of his desire "to bring in harmony all that surrounds me."

Drawn back into civil engineering, Roebling began his career in the United States first as a surveyor for the Pennsylvania Railroad. At the railroad he observed the thick, crude, and expensive rope used to haul heavy barges up hills to reach the canal systems and saw a way to improve the process. He invented and began manufacturing a smaller cable composed of many thin strands of wire twisted together to make a single cable, far stronger than the bulky rope then in use. Roebling was a leader in the manufacture of strong steel cables, and he later used their unique blend of strength and lightness in the construction of suspension bridges.

Roebling combined strength and lightness, extension-in-space and compactness, and the precision of steel cables with rolling Gothic arches in the stone towers of the bridges he created. His first suspension bridge was a highway bridge over the Monongahela River that runs through Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He then went on to construct a bridge across the Ohio River in Cincinnati, Ohio. Across the Niagara River in 1855, he built the first cable suspension bridge capable of handling human road traffic.

Roebling's last project, the design and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, began in June 1869. The Brooklyn Bridge was the longest and most modern bridge ever attempted at that time. It spans New York's East River, connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn. Hanging from steel cables almost sixteen inches thick, the bridge boasts two Gothic towers along its 1,595 foot length.

During the first stages of construction, Roebling suffered an accident while inspecting the stone base-pilings of the bridge and his foot was crushed. An infection quickly set in and he died of tetanus complications on July 22, 1869.

The Brooklyn Bridge, finished in 1883, fourteen years after the death of its creator, is a symbol of American ingenuity as the nation emerged from a farming economy into an industrial nation. It was completed by Roebling's son, Washington, who carried out the realization of his father's dream.

See also: Brooklyn Bridge


Gimsing, Niels J. Cable Supported Bridges: Concept and Design. New York: J. Wiley, 1983.

Mann, Elizabeth. The Brooklyn Bridge: A Wonder of the World Book. New York: Mikaya Press, 1996.

McCullough, David G. The Great Bridge. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Placzek, Adolph K. Architects. New York: The Free Press, 1982.

Steinman, David B. The Builders of the Bridge; the Story of John Roebling and His Son. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1945.

in pursuit of his philosophical ideal "to bring in harmony all that surrounds me," john augustus roebling became a pioneer of suspension bridges in the united states.

John Augustus Roebling

views updated Jun 08 2018

John Augustus Roebling

John Augustus Roebling (1806-1869), German-born American engineer, was noted for introducing the manufacture of wire rope to America and for constructing magnificent suspension bridges.

John Roebling was born in Mühlhausen, Thuringia (now part of Germany), on June 12, 1806. He obtained an excellent formal education, graduating from the Royal Polytechnic Institute at Berlin in 1826 with a degree in civil engineering. After working for 3 years on government road-building projects, he became dissatisfied with his life and opportunities in Germany. In 1831 Roebling and his brother, Karl, led a group of emigrants to the United States, where they established an agricultural community in western Pennsylvania.

Unsuccessful as a farmer, Roebling returned to engineering in 1837 and was employed by the state of Pennsylvania on various canal and railroad projects. He became interested in the Allegheny Portage Railroad linking the eastern and western sections of the Pennsylvania Canal, where he observed the difficulties involved in hauling bisected canal boats up and down the inclined planes of the railway. Roebling suggested using wire rope for hauling in place of the bulky and expensive fiber ropes which rapidly frayed and parted. He had read of experiments in Germany with ropes made of twisted wire but had not seen any. He made a number of experiments and eventually convinced the state Board of Public Works to test his idea; consequently, in 1841 Roebling manufactured the first wire cable in America. His small factory in Saxonburg, Pa., was equipped with machinery of his own design and fabrication. In the late 1840s the wire cable factory was relocated at Trenton, N.J., where Roebling subsequently made his home.

In 1844-1845 Roebling built his first structure utilizing his wire cables. He erected a wooden canal aqueduct across the Allegheny River. It consisted of seven spans, each 162 feet long, all supported by two 7-inch wire cables. Following this unprecedented achievement, Roebling built his first suspension bridge in 1845-1846; it was to carry a highway across the Monongahela River at Pittsburgh and consisted of eight spans of 188 feet each. Although he was anticipated in building wire suspension bridges by Charles Ellet, Jr., who in 1842 successfully introduced this type of design, Roebling achieved greater success and eminence in the field.

In many ways Roebling's most notable work was the pioneer railroad suspension bridge built at Niagara Falls between 1851 and 1855. This structure was begun in 1847 by Ellet, who withdrew from the job in 1849 after building a footbridge. Roebling built the railroad bridge, thus solidifying his reputation as the foremost suspension bridge builder in America. He subsequently built bridges over the Allegheny River at Pittsburgh (1860) and the Ohio River at Cincinnati (1867). Roebling's special building techniques included wrapping the numerous wires composing the cables. He also used special stiffening and bracing cables to protect against the weather and to add rigidity to the entire structure.

When plans for a bridge (the Brooklyn Bridge) over the East River connecting lower Manhattan and Brooklyn were revived in the 1860s, Roebling was appointed chief engineer of the mammoth project. His plans for the undertaking were approved in 1869, and work was about to begin when Roebling suffered the accident which cost him his life. On June 28, while he was working at the bridge site, a ferryboat rammed the piling on which Roebling was standing and crushed his foot. The injured toes were amputated, but tetanus set in and he died on July 22, 1869. The Brooklyn Bridge, completed 14 years later under the supervision of Roebling's son, Washington, remains an enduring monument to the Roeblings.

Further Reading

One of the best biography of Roebling is D. B. Steinman, The Builders of the Bridge: The Story of John Roebling and His Son (1945), a comprehensive, well-researched study presented with a lively style but with a partisan flavor; it is based on a book by Hamilton Schuyler, The Roeblings: A Century of Engineers, Bridge-builders and Industrialists (1931), which quotes from primary sources. A dated but useful work is Charles B. Stuart, Lives and Works of Civil and Military Engineers of America (1871). See also Gene D. Lewis's scholarly biography of another pioneer suspension bridge builder, Charles Ellet, Jr.: The Engineer as Individualist, 1810-1862 (1968), and Carl W. Condit, American Building Art: The Nineteenth Century (1960), for the excellent chapters on bridges.

Additional Sources

Sayenga, Donald, Ellet and Roebling, York, PA: American Canal and Transportation Center, 1983. □

Roebling, John Augustus

views updated Jun 27 2018

Roebling, John Augustus (1806–69) US engineer and industrialist, b. Germany. In 1831 he emigrated to the USA and became a civil engineer. He directed the construction of suspension bridges across the Allegheny and Niagara rivers. He was appointed chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1869, but was killed in an accident during an early survey. His son Washington Augustus Roebling (1837–1926) was also an engineer and industrialist. During the Civil War, he served as a military engineer and balloonist. In 1869 he succeeded his father as chief engineer on the Brooklyn Bridge until its completion in 1883.

Roebling, John Augustus

views updated May 09 2018

Roebling, John Augustus (1806–69). German-born American engineer. In 1841–9 he perfected the manufacture of twisted-wire cables which he employed to suspend the Pennsylvania State Canal aqueduct above the Allegheny River (1844–5), a work that won him recognition. With his son, Washington Augustus Roebling (1837–1926), he designed the Brooklyn Bridge, NYC (1869–83), then the longest suspension-bridge in the world. J. A. Roebling published Long and Short Span Railway Bridges (1869).


Condit (1960, 1968);
Placzek (ed.) (1982);
H. Schuyler (1931);
Jane Turner (1996);
A. Trachtenberg (1965);
Vogel (1971)

John Augustus Roebling

views updated May 21 2018

John Augustus Roebling


German-American engineer and industrialist who pioneered the construction of suspension bridges in the United States. Born and educated in Germany, Roebling emigrated to America, where he designed and built several well known bridges, including one that spanned Niagara Falls and the Brooklyn Bridge over the East River. An important Roebling innovation was that of replacing the bulky chains used in German bridges with lighter, stronger woven steel cables, which his company also manufactured.

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