One of the books I’m intermittently reading is “The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge” by David McCullough. It’s a 562 page encyclopedia behind the most iconic structures in America. Side note, I have major respect to McCullough (and any historical writer) for creating such a book. I can’t imagine the amount of work that goes into researching and fact checking a book of this magnitude. And then to write it in an engaging and storytelling style; it takes a lot of skill, patience, and effort.
My freshmen year of college I took a history course that covered post Civil-War US. We spent a couple days learning about the Brooklyn Bridge. My professor, the master story teller, had me mesmerized by the bridge. To build a beautiful bridge of such scale, at that time, over the East River (a very turbulent area), and unite Manhattan and Brooklyn, is nothing short of incredible. The Chief Architect, German born John Roebling, was a visionary. He saw a bridge that wasn’t just a utility, but would be a iconic structure that would define New York City. He envisioned a pedestrian walkway that would rise above the horses and carriages, giving pedestrians a feeling of walking in the clouds. The beautiful towers would rise to the sky and would be seen from miles away. The opening chapter has a perfect quote by Montgomery Schuyler, written in Harper’s Weekly on May 24, 1883:
It so happens that the work which is likely to be our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge.
Spoiler alert. John Roebling passes away before work on the bridge commences. The Chief Architect becomes his son, Washington Roebling. Washington had experience in bridge building, but not nearly to the extent of his father. With the passing of his father, Washington was tasked with building one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects in US history.
Washington was trained for the job. In 1853 his father sent him to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Troy, New York. It was a new kind of school, the first in America established to provide an education in "Theoretical and Practical Science". It was one of the few institutions in the US offering a civil engineering program. Here is what Washington, age 17, was facing in 1853:
His senior thesis was to be on "Design for a Suspension Aqueduct," but in three years time he had also to master nearly a hundred different courses, including:
- Analytical Geometry of Three Dimensions
- Differential and Integral Calculus
- Calculus of Variations
- Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis
- Determinative Mineralogy
- Higher Geodesy (the mathematical science of the size and shape of the earth)
- Logical and Rhetorical Criticism
- French Composition and Literature
- Orthographic and Spherical Projections
- Geology of Mining
- Rational Mechanics of Solids and Fluids
- Spherical Astronomy
- Kinematics (the study of motion exclusive of the influences of mass and force)
- Machine Design
- Hydraulic Motors
- Steam Engines
- Stability of Structures
- Engineering and Architectural Design and Construction
- Intellectual and Ethical Philosophy
No computers, no calculators. I imagine the best-of-the-best from MIT to be challenged by such a curriculum. Washington describes students dropping out our committing suicide from the pressure. He made it through, and with his experience as a soldier (and the son of the Chief Architect) he became the right man for the job.
Studying Washington’s story leads me to think about various topics. I’m mesmerized by what an individual can achieve. The importance of a college education when so many people (myself included) are questioning it’s value today. A ‘new’ type of school that balanced theory with practical knowledge that was around in 1853. Who were the visionaries behind the Civil Engineering program at Rensselaer Polytechnic and how did they come up with such a program? It was a fascinating time, and I’m looking forward to continuing to read about Washington Roebling’s story in building The Great Bridge.