A Story Of Determination

July 17, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured

John Roebling was born in Prussia in 1806. He studied engineering in Berlin, where he met the philosopher Hegel who told him that America was “a land of hope for all who are wearied of the historic armory of old Europe.” Roebling liked the sound of that, and he moved to the US in 1831.

After spending years working on canal equipment and building smaller bridges, Roebling had the vision to build what would be at the time the longest bridge in the world — a single-span suspension bridge, 1600 feet long — from Manhattan to Brooklyn. He was hotly opposed — by ferryboat operators who stood to lose money and by citizens who thought it couldn’t be done.    

He had backing by 1869; but then, while he was surveying the site, his foot was crushed by a loose piling and he soon died of tetanus. His son, Washington, took up the work. And a terrible task it was — plagued by accidents, deaths, and the paralyzing caisson disease. Caisson disease was caused by the pressure variations in the huge caisson piers in the East River. In 1876 it caught up with Washington Roebling. No longer able to walk, or even to talk, he developed a way of communication with his wife, by tapping his only useable finger on her, which was then decoded for the engineers. 

For 13 years Washington tapped out his instructions with his finger on his wife’s arm, until the bridge was finally completed. Today the spectacular Brooklyn Bridge stands in all its glory as a tribute to the triumph of two men’s indomitable spirits and their determination not to be defeated by circumstances.

It is also a tribute to the engineers and their team work, and to their faith in the two men who were considered mad by half the world. It stands too as a tangible monument to the love and devotion of his wife who for 13 long years patiently decoded the messages of her husband and told the engineers what to do.

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