John Augustus Roebling

John Augustus Roebling
John Augustus Roebling
Mülhausen, Prussia
Death date
Associated organizations
The Roebling's Sons CO.
Fields of study
Structural Engineering, Mechanical Engineering


John Augustus Roebling was an engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur. He designed bridges, built machines and buildings, and eventually became a financial success. Specifically, he is noted for developing steel wire used in bridge construction, and is renowned for constructing the Brooklyn Bridge with his son Washington Roebling. Historically, he was known as one of the worlds leading engineers of his day, pioneering the development of bridges to come. [1]

Roebling was born June 12th of 1806 into a middle-class family in Mülhausen, Prussia. His father was a tobacco merchant and Roebling was able to receive an excellent education as a result of Napoleon's education reforms following his conquest of Prussia in 1806. During his education, he had learned French and drafting at the Mülhausen grammar school, while studying mathematics with prominent engineers during the time. [2]

While going through his early education, he had visited Bamberg, Bavaria during a summer trip. It was there he saw a suspension bridge for the first time, where he fell in love with it and sketched it into his notepad. This experience inspired him to pursue a career in engineering. Following this, Roebling went on to study engineering and philosophy at the Royal Polytechnic Institute in Berlin, Germany (originally known as the Royal Building Academy of Berlin), graduating in 1826. After being required to work for three years on government road-building projects, he became dissatisfied with the lack of opportunity and decided to immigrate to the U.S. [3]

At the age of 25, he eventually decided to settle with his older brother Karl and others from his hometown of Mühlhausen into a small colony of immigrants that would later be called Saxonberg, near Pittsburgh, in the hills of western Pennsylvania. He went on to marry the daughter of another Mühlhausen emigrant named Johanna Herting in 1836. [4] Together they went on to have nine children, including Washington Augustus Roebling in the year 1837, who would later assist in the development of the Brooklyn Bridge. Johann became an American citizen later that year with the anglicized name John A. Roebling. [5]

Following the unexpected death of his brother Karl, Roebling gave up the prospect of farming and traveled to the state capital Harrisburg to obtain employment as a surveyor. During his surveying work, Roebling studied the state-owned Portage Railroad, where a combination of level tracks with inclines connected two primary canal systems.[6] Here he observed that the service life of the hemp ropes being used may be improved if they were made of iron. He had obtained this idea from reading about various German experiments in which ropes were being made of twisted metal, however despite reading about it, he hadn't actually seen any produced.

Developing a number of experimental machines to produce metal wires to twist into ropes, he eventually convinced the state Board of Public Works to test his theory on producing the cable. In 1841, Roebling successfully manufactured the first wire cable in America. Using a factory in Saxonburg, PA that was equipped with machinery of his own design and fabrication, he eventually relocated his factory to Trenton N.J. [7] It remained a family owned business until 1952, carried on by three generations of Roeblings.

Between the years of 1844-45, Roebling built his first structure utilizing his wire cables; it was a wooden canal aqueduct that spaded across the Allegheny River. It consisted of seven spans 162 feet long, all of which were supported by two 7-inch wire cables. Following this project, Roebling constructed his first suspension bridge between the years of 1845-46; it was to link a highway across the Monongahela River at Pittsburgh. It consisted of eight spans of 188 feet each, all of which were supported by the metal rope produced at Roebling's factory. However, his most notable work before the development of the Brooklyn bridge was the creation of the Niagara Falls suspension bridge, taking place between the years 1851 and 1855. The development of the Niagara Falls bridge officially established him as the leading suspension bridge engineer in America. [8]

After developing the Niagara Falls suspension bridge, in 1858 his eldest son Washington began to assist in his work. Together, they developed a suspension bridge in Pittsburgh, and another across the Ohio River between Cincinnati, Ohio, and Covington, Kentucky. Eventually, Roebling and his son were purposed to develop plans for a bridge to connect Brooklyn and Manhattan. Roebling designed a plan for the project, and in 1867 was appointed chief engineer. [9]

Beginning work on the Brooklyn Bridge, he suffered an accident while observing its development. Examining the site of the Brooklyn tower, he stood on the movable rack of the ferry slip to get a better view. A docking boat hit the rack, crushing his toes. Taken to a bathhouse, he attempted to self-medicate himself with hydrotherapy, a treatment in which water is constantly poured on the wound. A doctor suggested that he relocate to his son's home in Brooklyn, however Roebling ordered the doctor away and continued with his hydrotherapy treatment. Three weeks later, as a result of poorly treating his wound, he died of tetanus on July 22nd, 1869 at the age of 63. His son Washington took charge of its development, and in 1883 the Brooklyn Bridge was complete. [10]

The Brooklyn Bridge was one of the first great suspension bridges of the United States that had cables formed from parallel steel wires that were spun in place. However, due to the heavy health risks of working on the bridge, more then a hundred workers suffered serious cases of the bends, otherwise known as decompression sickness. When first opened for use on May 24th, 1883, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. The bridge itself was allowed to carry six lanes of traffic on a span of 1,595 ft.; the foundations built in timber caissons sunk to depths of 13.5 m on the Brooklyn piers and 24 m on the Manhattan piers. [11]