A Day Of Bridges

Today is an anniversary of bridges, both the literal and the metaphorical. I think the both sorts of bridge very naturally command our attention and interest, for these crucial connectors are both immensely practical, and intensely inspirational. Add to that this: physical bridges are often works of surpassing beauty, even when they are at their most elemental and unadorned; metaphorical bridges are works of human genius or human passion and compassion – endlessly fascinating.

It was on this day in 1883 that the renowned Brooklyn Bridge was first opened to the public, with pomp and ceremony the like of which New York had not seen in two generations, since the opening of the Erie Canal fifty-eight years earlier. Fourteen years in the making, the Brooklyn Bridge was the outstanding engineering feat of its day. It was the longest and largest span the world had seen up to that time, and it embodied the very most modern of technological advances.

The bridge was the brainchild of German-born John A. Roebling, a gifted civil engineer who designed many smaller suspension bridges before he proposed the audacious span across New York’s East River. Roebling also introduced the manufacturing of wire rope (or cable) to the United States, and his wire rope company prospered as more and more suspension bridges were built across the nation. Roebling believed that the capabilities of wire rope were far greater than had been realized; he foresaw that suspension bridges could be built where other bridge designs would be impossible due to site limitations or navigational concerns. The East River between New York and Brooklyn was too important a commercial waterway to constrict with a tradition wooden or stone bridge, and the site was unsuitable for such traditional bridge designs as well, with the channel being unusually deep. Roebling realized that this was the ideal location to test his vision.

In the course of the Brooklyn Bridge’s construction, twenty-seven men died. Considering the often brutal working conditions for construction laborers in that era, this is a relatively small number. Such was the concern for the health and safety of the bridge workers that one contemporary newspaper accused Roebling of coddling his crew! Yet injuries were many. Workers were killed when cables snapped and when an archway collapsed, but many succumbed to a hideous and previously unknown malady called “Caisson disease.” Today we know this affliction as “The Bends.” When the massive stone towers of the bridge were being built, workers labored deep under water in gigantic, highly pressurized caissons – imagine inverting a bucket in a pool of water: the trapped air will become compressed and pressurized as you push the bucket deeper into the water, but it will be a pocket of breathable air under water. Air was pumped into these caissons to ensure that water would not intrude. But the high pressure created a situation similar to that encountered by deep divers: rapid decompression caused nitrogen bubbles to form in the bloodstream of victims, causing excruciating pain, paralysis, and even death.

It is worth noting that among the casualties of the Bridge was John A. Roebling, who had the vision and the ability to conceive and undertake the project, and who personally oversaw it inception and continuation. John Roebling was injured during an inspection of the Bridge site in mid 1869, two years into the tremendous undertaking. The injury seemed almost slight: his right foot had been caught between the dock and the boat he was boarding. The injury, however, led to the amputation of his toes, and developed into a life-threatening infection. Less than a month after the accident, he was dead.

Roebling’s son Washington next took the helm of the Bridge project. Washington Roebling would live to see the Bridge completed, and far beyond. He observed, shortly before his death in 1926, that few seemed to be able to separate his identity from that of his father: “Many people think I died in 1869.” Washington Roebling was himself a victim of the Bridge: working to control a fire in the Brooklyn caisson he developed a severe, debilitating case of The Bends. Though he later made a partial recovery, Washington Roebling was permanently crippled by the injury. He moved into a house which overlooked the construction site, and his wife Emily assumed the active duties of managing and supervising construction.

The Brooklyn Bridge was a marvel of engineering, of materials science, and of shear courage: the courage to commence the undertaking, and the courage to see it through to completion despite setbacks and personal tragedy. The Bridge so closely connected the cities of New York and Brooklyn, that less than fifteen years after the Bridge opened, the cities merged into Greater New York. And it served as an inspiration to countless other bridge projects which employed the suspension design. Other bridges have long since exceeded the dimensions of the Brooklyn Bridge, but few have ever had its impact.

There is so much to say about the creation of this “Wonder of the World.” The astounding engineering feats that made it possible to build the huge masonry towers deep under water are worth a book of their own. To delve deeper, consider a couple of resources: filmmaker Ken Burns made a wonderful documentary about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge that periodically airs on PBS. It is also available on DVD, and is well worth a look. For a definitive and wonderfully enjoyable history of the Bridge, read David McCullough’s The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge. (Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1972: ISBN: 067145711X) This comprehensive book (577 pages) never fails to hold one’s attention, and McCullough’s engaging writing and energetic narrative style make the text more entertaining than many a fictional novel.

As for the metaphorical bridge associated with this day, it was on this day in 1844 that Samuel F. B. Morse publically demonstrated a practical telegraph, transmitting a message from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, Maryland, and receiving the same message in reply. While in today’s world the distance between Baltimore and Washington is trivial indeed, in 1844, it still took a fast courier half a day to carry a message between the two cities. Telegraphc, instant communication created, in effect, a communication bridge between the two cities, and later this “bridge” spanned the globe, connecting New York to London and beyond, Hong Kong to San Francisco, Sydney to Capetown.

Morse was not the originator of the notion of using electrical signals to communicate over great distances; the idea had been around for more than three decades when Morse made his demonstration. Morse, however, was the first to build a practical, commercially viable implementation of this idea. Still, because the notion was so novel, and practical applications of electricity were all but unknown, Morse had difficulty attracting investors to his plans. He was finally able to interest the United States Congress in the potential of the telegraph, and Congress voted the funding for the construction of the world’s first data-com network between Washington and Baltimore. (DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and ARPA, The Advanced Research Projects Agency, the forebears of the Internet we know today, therefore descend from a long and fruitful tradition!) Morse also developed his Morse Code, which made rapid transmission of information possible, despite the inherent limitations of the day’s technology.

Morse Code, a series of “dots” and “dashes” used to represent alphabetic characters, numerals, and punctuation, would prove to be the most enduring remote communication standard the world has yet seen. The simplicity of the code, and its suitability for a broad range of media — electric telegraph, flashing light, most any audible percussive method, and even the human voice, (as “di-dah-dah-dit”) as well as print and other visual representations — made the code widely useful. Though the code underwent several modifications between Morse’s famous first demonstration and its designation as an official international standard in 1865, it remained in official use internationally until it was formally superseded for navigational purposes by the International adoption of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System on 1 February 1999. Thus this first “network protocol” endured for more than 150 years. And it remains in wide use today, especially among amateur radio enthusiasts.

Morse’s demonstration was a success, and the commercial telecom business was born. Within a decade, more than 24,000 miles of telegraph line crisscrossed the nation, utterly transforming society. The telegraph was a natural companion to the rapidly expanding railroad network. This pairing opened the vast spaces of North America to settlement, and permitted a vast swath of the continent to be truly and effectively integrated into a functioning nation.

In April of 1844, information moved at the rate of the fastest horse, the swiftest ship; by late 1858, information could be transmitted from New York to London in seconds! The world was forever changed, and pace of life increased with the speed of information. It is therefore fitting that the choice of the first text to be sent over the telegraph seemed to presage this impact: “What hath God wrought?”

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

We can communicate an idea around the world in seventy seconds,
but it sometimes takes years for an idea to get through
a quarter-inch of human skull.

— Charles F. Kettering

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