When it opened in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge was the answer to a geographical problem that should be familiar to anyone living in New York today: the jobs were in Manhattan but the cheap housing was in the outer borough. The solution was a very complicated one that tested the limits of engineering and technological ingenuity.
On paper, the suspension bridge to be constructed across the East River – an unprecedented distance – sounded veritably un-buildable. But that’s what drew John Roebling to the project: having earned a reputation as a designer of suspension bridges, he made his major breakthrough on the Brooklyn: a web truss made of steel, added to either side of the bridge roadway. This would make the bridge six times stronger than it needed to be. The mammoth project would consume him, literally – he died of tetanus after losing toes in a construction-related boat accident – and more than two dozen construction workers, who would die in falls and in a fire.
After Roebling’s 32-year-old son, Washington, took over as chief engineer, he himself ended up bedridden from compression sickness, the result of building the bridge’s two granite foundations inside timber caissons, or watertight chambers, which were sunk to depths of 44 feet on the Brooklyn side and 78 feet on the New York side. His partial paralysis led Roebling’s wife, Emily, to step in. She had studied higher mathematics, the calculations of catenary curves, materials strength, bridge specifications, and the intricacies of cable construction, and spent the next 11 years assisting her husband on the bridge’s construction.