Building a Miracle

We usually think of “innovation” as fast, pertinent, immediate, something that just appears one day and fascinates us with its ingenuity. Always though, innovation has real people behind it and when those real people show character, persistence, passion, doggedness, that innovation has a chance of changing the world. It’s often true that innovation is the possession of hard work and devoted passion pressing forward to the future that you believe in. Such was the case for the Brooklyn Bridge, opened 138 years ago this week.

We stare at it today with passing admiration and yes, we revere it as a landmark. But the feat of accomplishment and the true innovations put into place along the way are a testament to the courage and ingenuity of its designers and builders. It was audacious to even suggest it really, much less take on the project with any seriousness. [1]

It was to be the largest suspension bridge ever built, one and a half times as big as its nearest rival. Crossing the East River with a graceful uninterrupted span, it would be held up by four enormous cables that would be fifteen inches in diameter and constructed of steel, a metal never yet used for bridges or even buildings. There were to be two towers holding up the span. These towers would be the tallest structures in view, taller than anything ever built on the New York skyline except the spire of the Trinity Church. They would in fact be the largest structures ever built in North America. How the towers would be embedded 50+ feet into the river bed was an unknown, one of many yet to be discovered innovations.

Another little appreciated aspect of the bridge’s construction is the age in which it was built. [2] There is much we take for granted now that wasn’t part of life then. These were the horse and buggy days so in reality, the entire bridge was built by hand. Motorized vehicles were yet to be invented so all materials were brought to the bridge by horse and wagon. There were no telephones for engineers and laborers to communicate and no jackhammers to break up the rock. There were no light bulbs to illuminate the work spaces. Derricks and cranes were made of wood. But yet, build it they did.

It took 14 long years to build the bridge, 1869–1883, years during which the project was under constant scrutiny and challenges. John Roebling, the bridge’s initial designer died before construction began, leaving his son, Washington to take over the project. Unfortunately, due to his exposure to extreme conditions underneath the bridge towers, Washington became extremely ill and was reduced to being an invalid. But through the extreme dedication and perseverance of his wife Emily who trained herself as an engineer, the bridge was completed and opened on May 24, 1883. On that first day, a total of 1,800 vehicles and 150,300 people crossed what was then the only land passage between Manhattan and Brooklyn.

The bridge today remains a monument to the willingness and courage of people to dream, envision and press forward, not knowing how they will get to the future, but willing to pay the cost to see their dreams become reality!

[1] McCullough, David. The Great Bridge the Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge. Simon & Schuster, 2001.

[2] Burns, Ken, director. Ken Burns: American Lives, 1997.

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