John Roebling Biography (1806-1869)


John Augustus Roebling was a pioneer in American bridge building, not only for his designs, but for the materials and methods he used in their construction. His crowning achievement was New York's Brooklyn Bridge.

Roebling was born in Muhlhausen, Germany, the son of a tobacco shop owner. While visiting Bamberg, Bavaria, Roebling saw a suspension bridge for the firsttime, fell in love with it, and made a sketch of it. At that moment he decided on a career in bridge building.

Roebling studied engineering and philosophy at the Royal Polytechnic Institute in Berlin, Germany, and graduated in 1826. Four years later he emigrated tothe United States to take advantage of the great opportunities that awaitedengineers. Upon his arrival, Roebling bought a farm in Pennsylvania, where hewaited out the residency requirement for U.S. citizenship. A year after becoming a citizen in 1837, he went to work for the State of Pennsylvania as a canal engineer. It was obvious that Roebling had bridge building on his mind, for it was not long before he invested his earnings as a canal builder into the production of steel cable. Wire rope, or cable, was a recent invention, andRoebling apparently saw its potential as a bridge building material before anyone else. Roebling invented his own machinery to twist steel wire into cable. In 1841 he established a factory in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania, to mass-produce cable.

At first, his new product was used in the canal business for hoisting and pulling canal boats. Roebling employed it in bridges at the earliest opportunity, however, to replace the chains and rigid supporting rods then used. His first bridge project was a suspension bridge over the Monongahela River at Pittsburgh in 1846. He then opened a new cable factory in Trenton, New Jersey, andwent on to design and build suspension bridges at Niagara Falls (1854), overthe Allegheny River, at Pittsburgh (1860), and across the Ohio River at Cincinnati (1867).

The Brooklyn Bridge design was originally submitted in 1857, but it was not approved until 1869. As with the Cincinnati bridge, the Civil War was at leastpartly to blame for its delay, but once approved, the work was immediately started. On June 28, 1869, Roebling was standing on a set of wood pilings at the edge of the East River taking observations for his new bridge. A boat moved against the pilings, crushing several of Roebling's toes. The injury itselfwas not life threatening, but tetanus set in, and the infection took Roebling's life on July 22nd. His son, Washington Augustus Roebling, took over the Brooklyn Bridge project and saw to its completion in 1883. The Brooklyn Bridgewas unique in that its steel cables supported a span of 1,595 feet (486.2 m)from its 274-foot (83.5 m) twin towers, allowing ships to pass freely underneath. Had it not been for Roebling's untimely death, his mark on American bridge architecture might well have been far greater than it was.

Recent Updates

February 11, 2004: It was announced that Roebling will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in recognition of his inventions related to the suspension bridge. He developed a machine to twist wires into cablesand saw the potential of using these cables as a bridge component. The induction ceremony will be held on May 1, 2004, in Akron, Ohio. Source: National Inventors Hall of Fame,, April 8, 2004.

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