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.

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Further Reading on John Augustus Roebling

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 Biography Sources

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