This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

Jumbo And An Unsung Hero

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January 3, 1870: Construction Begins on Brooklyn Bridge

We have to remember this was 1870 and suspending tons of metal and concrete over a vast expanse of water had never been done at this level before. Completed in 1883, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world until 1903.

John Roebling

John Roebling

Contemporaries marveled at what technology was capable of and the bridge became a symbol of the optimism of the time. John Perry Barlow wrote in the late 20th century of the “literal and genuinely religious leap of faith” embodied in the Brooklyn Bridge … “the Brooklyn Bridge required of its builders faith in their ability to control technology.”

The bridge was initially designed by German immigrant John Augustus Roebling, who had previously designed and constructed shorter suspension bridges. While conducting surveys for the bridge project, Roebling sustained a crush injury to his foot when a ferry pinned it against a piling. After amputation of his crushed toes he developed a tetanus infection which left him incapacitated and he died soon afterward.

Washington Roebling

Washington Roebling

Before his death he placed his 32-year-old son Washington in charge of the project. Washington also suffered a paralyzing injury as a result of decompression sickness shortly after the beginning of construction. This condition, first called “caisson disease”, afflicted many of the workers that worked within the caissons. It was the same as decompression sickness divers experience sometimes called the bends.

Roebling’s debilitating condition left him unable to physically supervise the construction firsthand. He conducted the entire construction from his apartment overlooking the construction site aided by his wife Emily Warren Roebling who provided the critical link between her husband and the engineers on site.

Emily Warren Roebling

Emily Warren Roebling

Emily became the unsung hero in completing the bridge project. She studied higher mathematics, the calculations of catenary curves, the strengths of materials, bridge specifications, and the intricacies of cable construction. She spent the next 11 years assisting and helping to supervise the bridge’s construction.

The Brooklyn Bridge was opened for use on May 24, 1883, attended by several thousand people and teeming with ships in the East Bay. Washington was unable to attend the ceremony but Emily Warren Roebling was the first to cross the bridge. That day a total of 1,800 vehicles and 150,300 people crossed what was then the only land passage between Manhattan and Brooklyn.

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On May 30, 1883, six days after the opening, a rumor that the Bridge was going to collapse caused a stampede, which was responsible for at least twelve people being crushed and killed. P. T. Barnum helped to squelch doubts about the bridge’s stability – while publicizing his famous circus – when one of his most famous attractions, Jumbo, led a parade of 21 elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Jumbo

Jumbo

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The bridge’s main span over the East River is 1,595 feet 6 inches. The cost was $15.5 millionto build and an estimated 27 people died during its construction. Roebling designed a bridge and truss system that was six times as strong as he thought it needed to be. Because of this, the Brooklyn Bridge is still standing when many of the bridges built around the same time have vanished into history and been replaced.

 Bowery Bugs:     https://archive.org/details/BoweryBugs

References to “selling the Brooklyn Bridge” abound in American culture, sometimes as examples of rural gullibility but more often in connection with an idea that strains credulity, “If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.” The 1949 Bugs Bunny cartoon Bowery Bugs is a joking reference to Bugs “selling” a story of the Brooklyn Bridge to a naïve tourist.

Edison film, “New Brooklyn to New York Via Brooklyn Bridge”, 1899:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WA47Y6em8M

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3 thoughts on “Jumbo And An Unsung Hero

  1. I’m curious about the picture of Emily Warren Roebling. I’ve never seen this image. What is it’s provenance? I’ve done research on her and impersonate her in a historical presentation http://bridgebuilderinpetticoats.com/ Thanks!

    • Thanks’ much for the heads up, you have an excellent eye. I’ve gone back to my post and to my embarrassment realized the picture is incorrect. After doing some research I realized the picture is of Victoria Woodhull who published, Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly in the early 1870’s. She spent time in jail for publishing an account of Henry Ward Beecher’s adulterous scandal. Beecher was a famed (blowhard) Brooklyn preacher. Her frank report got her thrown in jail on obscenity charges! She was quite a powerful woman in her time. Check out this cut from a speech she gave in Apollo Hall regarding women’s rights (my apologies if you’ve already seen this):

      I have asked for equality nothing more. . . . Sexual freedom means the abolition of prostitution both in and out of marriage, means the emancipation of woman from sexual slavery and her coming into ownership and control of her own body, means the end of her pecuniary dependence upon man . . . means the abrogation of forced pregnancy, of . . . undesired children and the birth of love children only . . .
      Rise and declare . . . yourself free. Women are entirely unaware of their power. Like an elephant led by a string they are subordinated by . . . just those who are most interested in holding them in slavery. If the very next Congress refuses women all the legitimate results of citizenship . . . we shall proceed to call another convention expressly to frame a new constitution and to erect a new government . . . We mean treason, we mean secession, and on a thousand times grander scale than was that of the South. We are plotting revolution.

      I have updated the post to get the “right” Emily picture. She was truly an unsung hero and I thought it was so appropriate she was the first to cross the Brooklyn Bridge. It is remarkable to find you are doing an impersonation of her. I looked on YouTube for you and found this (I get the feeling you’ve probably already seen this): http://youtu.be/_lZGWghu6Oo
      Regards

      • Yes, I know Victoria Woodhull. There is an excellent children’s book on her (I’m a Youth Services Librarian) called “A woman for president : the story of Victoria Woodhull.” There is also an adult biography (which I haven’t read) called “Notorious Victoria : the life of Victoria Woodhull, uncensored.”

        Thanks for the video link. I love that wonderful quote. I use it in my hour-long impersonation of Emily Roebling as well. More information at http://bridgebuilderinpetticoats.com/ (I do have a video of my show. Contact me directly if you want the YouTube link — it is a private link.) 🙂 Carol

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