No Dark Magic

books, Sweden, and computers, not necessarily in any order

Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge by Erica Wagner

Posted at — Apr 15, 2020

“Chief Engineer” cover The Brooklyn Bridge was built under the supervision of the chief engineer Washington Roebling, but many people over the years mistakenly assumed it was under his father, John. This book is about both of them, really. It has lots and lots of references at the end, a few pages of full-color photos and illustrations in the middle, and a vast amount of quotes everywhere.

Starting years before Washington was born and ending a bit after his death, this biography encompasses a lot, and the bridge, or its engineering, are just one story arc among many. Quite some attention is paid to the Roebling senior’s mistrust in medicine (and trust into water cures and communicating with spirits instead), the titular Roebling’s health, both of theirs marital affairs, business affairs, and alike.

The author takes an unambiguous side in the central father-son relationship (which was reportedly abusive), and seems to highlight and enlarge the drama of it throughout the book. Despite Washington Roebling not shying away from describing his body’s ailments in excessive detail when he’s writing letters to his family, he is way more restrained when talking about violence in his childhood home in any of the quotes — about ten times more restrained than the author, who brings up the trauma multiple times and alleges that Washington felt it at this or that moment.

There are many delightful details about everyday life in the United States of the late 19th century which make the book an open window into that time. German immigrants building up a business and selling wire rope to the first elevator makers, women getting a law degree which didn’t let them practice law, workers building bridges in deep rivers without knowing about decompression — this was but a few generations ago, and there’s a bridge used today that has seen it all.

Of course, building that bridge wasn’t easy. There was a fire, there was a corrupt politician, there were all sorts of things. Chief Engineer’s health did not let him be on-site for the majority of the 14 years the project took, so he got to be one of those people who worked remotely, was doing his job well, but needed to defend himself to the management which was filled with mistrust.

He perseveres with precision. There’s not much thrill to it, but a lot of grit.

Now you have whole companies with dozens of people doing what one man did. As Washington himself said, “it’s all in my head”. […​] You had someone who says: This is my bridge. And this is one of the few bridges where there were major changes to the design as it was being built—much of the engineering was done on the fly.


(384 pages, ISBN:9781620400524, Worldcat, Open Library)

There is no comments section, but if you'd like to give feedback or ask questions about this post, please contact me.