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You Can Thank This Man for the Brooklyn Bridge

Professor Richard Haw (John Jay College) had “a very provincial life” growing up in Leeds, England. But eventually he visited New York City, and like millions of tourists before and after, he strolled across the Brooklyn Bridge. 

The experience, he says, was “magical,” and it kindled a lifelong interest in the bridge and its creator, John Roebling. Haw has written two books about the Brooklyn Bridge, and he’s just completed a third book called Engineering America. It’s the first biography of Roebling to be published in more than 50 years.

John Roebling died before the bridge was built. His son Washington Roebling completed the project. But the vision “was really John’s,” Haw explained in a podcast interview for CUNY Book Beat and the Gotham Center for New York City History. 

It was John Roebling who designed that exhilarating pedestrian walkway, those soaring Gothic towers, the elegant (yet structurally fierce) filigree of cables, and the incomparable location, with a view of New York Harbor, the city’s islands, and downtown Manhattan. Those elements are what make the bridge not just an engineering triumph but a glorious public space, and a veritable work of art. 

Roebling was born in a sleepy medieval town in Germany, but Napoleon’s invasion of Prussia turned it into a war zone. At the same time, political and industrial revolutions were transforming Europe.

“John’s story is a story of growing up in a war,” Haw said. “It’s a story of immigration, of science, medicine, technology, slavery, freedom, politics, identity. It’s a story of commerce and transportation, philosophy and belief of religions, all the sort of things that make the 19th century really compelling.”

Roebling emigrated to America with a plan to found a utopian commune, but the group splintered, and Roebling was no good at farming. Gradually he built a business as a reliable engineer — no small feat in an era when bridges frequently collapsed. The book also details Roebling’s family life, personality, and his bizarre beliefs — which were especially odd given his grounding in science.

“He believed in spirits,” Haw said. “He wrapped himself up in a wet sheet before going to bed every night. He was big on seances. He ate his own body weight in charcoal.” 

But Roebling also had a deep understanding of human nature, and that led him to design one of the most beloved structures in the world. To walk across the Brooklyn Bridge “is a profoundly moving experience,” said Haw. “It’s an excellent piece of architecture, an accomplished piece of engineering, a brilliant piece of public planning. And it’s a constant reminder of what the world can look like when we do all these things really well.”