John A. Roebling

John A. Roebling

Infobox Architect

caption=John Augustus Roebling (1806-1869)
name=John Augustus Roebling
birth_date=June 12, 1806
birth_place=Mühlhausen, German Kingdom of Prussia
death_date=July 22, 1869
death_place=Brooklyn Heights, New York, USA
significant_buildings=Allegheny River Aqueduct, Monongahela River Suspension Bridge, Cincinnati-Covington Bridge
significant_projects=(see below)

John Augustus Roebling (born Johann August Röbling, June 12, 1806 in Mühlhausen - July 22, 1869) was a German-born civil engineer famous for his wire rope suspension bridge designs, in particular, the design of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Early life

As a young boy Roebling enjoyed music such as playing the flute and the piano. He enjoyed listening to the melodies of Bach and poetry of Goethe. Roebling also had great artistic talent as portrayed in many of his paintings. He built a model bridge at the age of nine and later this bridge was noticed to be similar to the Brooklyn Bridge. Roebling grew up in a time where the older students put on uniforms, shouldered muskets, and marched off to stop Napoleon and his army. John grew up in the city of Mühlhausen where the design of his bridges can be seen in the architecture of the city. The Gothic architecture of Mühlhausen can be seen as the root of John's "innate feeling for the beautiful and the enduring in construction." (Steinman, D. B. (1950))


John attended the public schools of Gymnasium in Mühlhausen (at the age of 14 John passed the examination for the title of Master Builder or "Baumeister"), Realschule in Erfurt. Recognizing his intelligence at a young age, Roebling's mother, Friederike Dorothea Roebling secured enrollment for him at the Royal Polytechnic Institute in Berlin where he studied architecture and engineering under Rabe and Sluter, bridge construction and foundation construction under Dietleyn, hydraulics under Eytelwein, languages, and philosophy, graduating in 1826 with a degree in Civil Engineering. Additionally, Roebling studied under famous German philosopher Georg Hegel. Roebling became Hegel's protege, and completed a 2000 page treatise on his concept of the universe.Fact|date=November 2007

Fleeing Europe

On May 22, 1831, Roebling left Germany with his brother Karl and 40 friends and acquaintances. He wanted to build big bridges, which was difficult in Germany at the time. [ [] ] Economic mobility and career advancement were very difficult in Prussian society. This unfortunate state of affairs had been brought about by the Napoleonic Wars, which lasted until 1815. This period in European history left Prussia with a great deal of political unrest, as authoritarian governments traded places with democratic ones. John and Karl, along with the people who accompanied them on the trans-Atlantic journey, purchased 1582 acres (6.4 km²) of land on October 28, 1831, in Butler County, Pennsylvania ["Historic Saxonburg and Its Neighbors", Ralph Goldinger, ISBN 1-55856-043-2] and established a settlement, called Saxonburg.


John Roebling could not have arrived in the United States at a better time. One year prior to his arrival, President Andrew Jackson had authorized the use of nearly $100 million toward public engineering projects, including the construction of roads, railroads, and canals. A dominant mode of thought in America at the time was manifest destiny and the opening up of the West, and so transportation between eastern industrial hubs and frontier markets had become a matter of both national and popular interest.

Instead of continuing an engineering profession, he initially took up farming for a living. After five years he married a tailor's daughter, and had eight children with her over the next decade. Agrarian work was unsatisfactory to John Roebling, and in 1837, after the death of his brother and the birth of his first child, he returned to engineering.

Roebling's first engineering work in America was devoted to improving river navigation and canal building. He spent three years surveying for railway lines across the Allegheny Mountains, from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, for the state of Pennsylvania. In 1840, he wrote to suspension bridge designer Charles Ellet, Jr., offering to help with the design of a bridge near Philadelphia: [Steinman, David B. & Watson, Sara Ruth, "Bridges and their Builders", 1941]

"The study of suspension bridges formed for the last few years of my residence in Europe my favourite occupation ... Let but a single bridge of the kind be put up in Philadelphia, exhibiting all the beautiful forms of the system to full advantage, and it needs no prophecy to foretell the effect which the novel and useful features will produce upon the intelligent minds of the Americans."

In 1841, at his workshop in Saxonburg, he began producing wire rope. During this time, canal boats from Philadelphia had to be towed up and over the Allegheny Mountains on railroad cars to access waterways on the other side of the mountains so the boats could travel on to Pittsburgh. The system of inclines and levels that pulled the boats supported by railroad cars was called the Allegheny Portage Railroad. These railroad cars were pulled up the inclines by hemp rope up to nine inches thick. This rope eventually wore out, and as Roebling was watching a crew pull a boat up a hill one day, the rope snapped and sent the boat to the bottom of the mountain. Roebling then remembered an article he read in a German magazine about wire rope. Soon after, he started developing wire rope, which consists of strands of wire wound around an inner core to produce a tightly strung strand of cable. This wire rope was used in all of the suspension bridges that he designed. He had been fascinated with the idea of suspension bridges since his college days, and wrote his graduation thesis on the subject.

In 1844, Roebling won a bid to replace the wooden canal aqueduct across the Allegheny River. His design encompassed seven spans of 163 feet, each consisting of a wooden trunk to hold the water supported by a continuous wire cable on each side. That the design was successful was especially satisfying since a number of professional engineers had scoffed at the notion of a suspension aqueduct.

This was followed in 1845 by building a suspension bridge over the Monongahela River at Pittsburgh. In 1848, Roebling undertook the construction of four suspension aqueducts on the Delaware and Hudson Canal. During this period, he moved to Trenton, New Jersey.

Roebling's next project, starting in 1851, was a railroad bridge connecting the New York Central and Great Western Railway of Canada over the Niagara River, which would take four years. The bridge, with a clear span of 825 feet, is supported by four, ten-inch wire cables, and has two levels, one for vehicles and one for rail traffic.

While the Niagara bridge was being built, Roebling undertook another railway suspension bridge, across the Kentucky River on the Southern Railroad from Cincinnati to Chattanooga, which required a clear span of 1,224 feet. The anchorage and stone towers were completed, and the cable wire delivered along with the material for the superstructure, when the railway company collapsed: the bridge was left uncompleted.

In 1858, Roebling started another suspension bridge at Pittsburgh, this one of 1,030 feet, divided into two spans of 344 feet each, and two side spans of 171 feet each.

The outbreak of the American Civil War brought a temporary halt to Roebling's work. But during the war, in 1863, building resumed on a bridge over the Ohio River at Cincinnati which he had started in 1856 that was stopped due to financing difficulties; the bridge was finished in 1867. The Cincinnati-Covington Bridge, later named after him John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, would be the world's longest suspension bridge until completion of the Brooklyn Bridge.

In 1867 Roebling started design work on what is now called the Brooklyn Bridge, spanning the East River in New York. One day in 1869 he was standing at the edge of a dock, working on fixing the location where the bridge would be built, when his foot was crushed by an arriving ferry. His injured toes were amputated. He refused further medical treatment and wanted to cure his foot by "water therapy" (continuous pouring of water over the wound). While in the hospital, Roebling demanded constant updates on the progress of his greatest work and continued to help solve onsite problems. But his condition deteriorated until it was clear he had tetanus, and 24 days after the accident he was dead. [McCullough, David, "The Great Bridge", 1982, p.91]


Roebling's son Washington Roebling continued his work on the Brooklyn Bridge. Roebling's 3rd son Charles Roebling designed and invented the 80 ton wire rope machine and founded the town of Roebling, New Jersey where the John A. Roebling and Sons company steel mill was built. His grandson, Washington A. Roebling, II, died on the RMS Titanic. His great-grandson, Donald Roebling was a noted philanthropist and inventor who devised the amphtrack.


*1844 Allegheny Aqueduct Bridge Pittsburgh, Pa. 162' spans - replaced 1881–1883
*1846 Smithfield Street Bridge Pittsburgh, Pa. 188' spans
*1848 Lackawaxen Aqueduct two spans of 115 feet each, and two 7-inch cables.
*1849 Roebling's Delaware Aqueduct 4 spans of 134 feet each, and two 8-inch cables.
*1850 High Falls Aqueduct one span of 145 feet, and two 8 1/2-inch cables [ D & H Canal Museum]
*1850 Neversink Aqueduct one span of 170 feet, and two 8 1/2-inch cables
*1854 Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge New York-Canada 821' span
*1859 Allegheny Bridge Pittsburgh, Pa. 344' spans
*1867 John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge - spanning the Ohio River, 1,000 feet long with a deck clearance of 100 feet
*1869 Waco Suspension Bridge 475 foot span Waco, Texas
*1872 Barrett Bridge - spanning Delaware River at Port Jervis, New York, two 325-foot spans [] - Destroyed and rebuilt in 1875 [ [ The Wreck of the Barrett Bridge at Port Jervis - New York Times - March 21, 1875] ] [ [ The Port Jervis Flood - New York Times - March 18, 1875] ] - Permanently destroyed in 1903 flood
*1883 Brooklyn Bridge NYC-Brooklyn, N.Y. 1595' span

External links

* [ Invention Factory: Detailed biography]
* [ John Roebling Historic Saxonburg Society]


Reier, Sharon. The Bridges of New York. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, Inc., 2000.

McCullough, David. The Great Bridge. New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1982.

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