Building the World

Brooklyn Bridge, United States

Brooklyn Bridge, by Currier and Ives, 1874, from Library of Congress at

Brooklyn New York has been an entry point for people coming to live in the United States who brought diversity of cuisine, culture, language and politics. The famed span was conceived from an inspiration based the philosophy of Hegel, and presented as both an engineering marvel and a national iconic monument. The Brooklyn Bridge has inspired more poetry than any other bridge in history.


Hegel, From Bucknell University at

The builder of the Brooklyn Bridge may have had his first vision of the breakthrough technique that would win him fame while a student in Germany. His professor? Hegel. Could it have been the philosopher Hegel who first turned the mind of John Roebling to thoughts of spanning two points, whether virtual or real? A vacation in Bavaria may have sparked the idea that was to transform New York. John Roebling went for a hike to Bamberg where he happened upon what was called at that time a “miracle bridge” suspended over the Regnitz River by means of iron chains. It was an “Aha!” moment for the young student.

Roebling sat down on a rock and started sketching. While architecture, engineering, and hydraulics had formed his course of studies at the Royal Polytechnic of Berlin, it may have been openness of mind resulting from studying philosophy with Hegel that provided the flash of brilliance resulting in a bridge that has been lauded as “the eighth wonder of the world.”


In 1870, the year the bridge’s construction began (completed in 1883), Brooklyn was larger than New York City, in part due to its thriving port that was more popular than Boston. Nearby was Manhattan, epicenter of American finance. If the two cities could be bridged, great possibilities for shipping, trading and success were probable.

The New York legislature had been seeking a fixed link since 1802; a bridge or a tunnel were both under consideration. By the 1840s Roebling had come to America (first as a farmer) but soon turned to bridge-building, creating structures in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and even Niagara Falls where he proved trains could transit the span. Niagara’s success made Roebling’s reputation; an earlier bridge by another builder had failed. But it would be the Brooklyn Bridge that would be Roebling’s grand achievement. And he had the idea for how it could be done. Roebling designed and patented in-situ spinning of wire rope – it was the same idea he’d had on that hike in Bamberg, Germany. Patent granted, Roebling moved to New Jersey to build a factory for the specialized manufacturing of wire. In an unlucky twist of fate, right after Roebling sold the family farm, oil was found on the property. He just missed becoming wealthy, but he’d go on to become famous.

Breuckelen (so named at first was the port city of Brooklyn, New York) was chartered in 1646 by the Dutch West India Company. It was powerful port developed by global traders. A bridge to New York meant connecting to one of the world’s most powerful financial centers. Everyone wanted in on the deal.


Boss Tweed, from Library of Congress at

This standard American joke refers to the sale of the Brooklyn Bridge whose financing and shareholder process led to the famous Boss Tweed scandal. Tweed was a master at padding a project with costs thinly disguising payoffs. For example, a modest county courthouse on Manhattan’s Chamber Street ended up costing more than the purchase of Alaska. Tweed escalated the original price of $250,000 to the astounding sum of $13,000,000.

Even though the bridge didn’t open until 1883, the bridge went public in 1874 and was profitable before fully built. Law limited bridge profits to 15% net, and the contract demanded that if tolls were highly profitable, the fees would be reduced. If the bridge were eventually sold to either city (New York or Brooklyn), payment allowed a profit of 33.3%; a final provision assured that upon the sale of the bridge, all tolls would cease. Despite the Boss Tweed scandal, the Brooklyn Bridge proved successful, and serves as an example of privately held and financed public infrastructure.


There may be pros and cons to privately-financed public works. On the plus side, the government does not have to provide funds, hire workers, or procure and deliver materials. On the minus side, building, whether public or private, requires permissions and legions of lawyers. Perhaps that is why Boss Tweed was the master of the the deal, facilitating the governmental permissions process via some “gifts”. Still the job progressed.

George Shultz, having served both as U.S. Secretary of State and a leader of Bechtel Corporation, stated that in one instance, more than 300 permissions were required to construct a pipeline. The legal costs escalated to the point that Bechtel cancelled the project despite its financial promise in all other aspects.


Roebling’s genius was using steel, twisted steel. Before the Brooklyn Bridge, iron was the main building material for bridges and other heavy structures. But Roebling had a great insight into the strength possible with crucible-cast steel, and claimed it was six times stronger. During the building process, a wire contractor was caught using cheaper Bessemer steel, but even the inferior material was found to be stronger than required, all due to Roebling’s patented process.

Another innovation was the heavy roadway. Up until Roebling, engineers believed bridge roadways should be lighter so as to put less stress on the cables. But light structures sway in the wind; not a good idea for a bridge. A heavy roadbed was more stable, but how to hold the weight? As he had demonstrated in Niagara, Roebling’s cable design was the answer.

Roebling’s work was daring and proved dangerous to him and others. Back in Trenton, New Jersey, when he opened the factory to manufacture the cables, he caught his left hand in a machine. An accomplished pianist, he no longer could play. While working on the Brooklyn Bridge, he crushed his foot and died from a resultant tetanus infection. His son, Washington, took over but became severely disabled by the bends (decompression sickness caused by working underwater; now greatly helped by use of hyperbaric chambers which could be onsite in future underwater construction). Washington’s wife Emily found an apartment overlooking the site so he could continue to watch the bridge being built through binoculars. Emily herself took her husband’s place on the construction site, becoming perhaps the first woman field engineer. During the opening ceremony, Emily Roebling single-handedly brought more than 20 dignitaries who had made speeches at the lavish reception to the apartment bedroom to extend congratulations to the Roebling family. Then, bridge finished, she closed the apartment and packed the family off to their summer cottage in Newport.


The Brooklyn Bridge became a postal road for the conveyance of mail. As such, it was given special governmental protection. As a critical infrastructure controlling a river between two important strategic ports and financial centers, the Brooklyn Bridge was also a military stronghold. The Secretary of War signed off on the design’s effects on navigability of the river. Any changes to the plan had to be approved by the Secretary of War.


In an interesting use of precedent, the New York Act of Incorporation noted that if there were problems obtaining land needed for the bridge, the company would have access to powers of land acquisition “authorized for obtaining title to real estate required for the purposes of a railroad.” The permissions process developed for the American railroads was helpful in building the Brooklyn Bridge.

Document of Authorization

Below is an excerpt of the incorporation of the Brookly Bridge, referring to the rights of railways and a quote from Roebling’s proposal.


If the said corporation shall be unable to agree, for any reason, with the owner or owners of any real estate required for its purposes as aforesaid, for the purchase thereof, it shall have the right to acquire the same, in the manner and by the like special proceedings as are authorized and provided for obtaining title to real estate required for the purposes of a railroad corporation, under the fourteenth section of the act entitled “An act to authorize the formation of railroad corporations and to regulate the same,” passed April second, one thousand eight hundred and fifty.”

Fortieth Congress, Sess. III. Ch. 139, March 3, 1869.  See also Building the World, p. 250.



The contemplated work, when constructed in accordance with my design, will not only be the greatest bridge in existence, but it will be the great engineering work of the Continent and of the age. Its most conspicuous feature – the great towers – will serve as landmarks to the adjoining cities, and they will be entitled to be ranked as national monuments. As a great work of art, and a successful specimen of advanced bridge engineering, the structure will forever testify to the energy, enterprise, and wealth of that community which shall secure its erection.

–   John Augustus Roebling
See Building the World, p. 251-2. And also available at:

VOICES OF THE FUTURE: Discussion and Implications

Public Art: Roebling’s vision of the Brooklyn Bridge as public art may have opened a new era in engineering and construction. How might design influence acceptance of structures such as wind turbines?

Rights and Might: Should public structures be subject to military command? What powers must be in place for such use? For example, during the London 2012 Olympics, the government placed security forces atop high-rise residential apartments near the Games. What are the considerations for all stakeholders involved?


To read the complete chapter, members of the University of Massachusetts Boston may access the e-book through Healey Library Catalog and  ABC-CLIO here.  Alternatively the volumes can be accessed at WorldCat, or at Amazon for purchase. Further resources are available onsite at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Healey Library, including some of the following:

Building the World Collection Finding Aid

(*indicates printed in notebook series)

Crane, Hart, The Bridge. Black Sun Press, 1930.

Kerouac, Jack. “The Brooklyn Bridge Blues.” See

Mann, Elizabeth. The Brooklyn Bridge: A Wonder of the World Book. New York: Mikaya Press, 1996. For children ages 9-12.

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


About Hart Crane:

Creative Commons License

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.

Skip to toolbar