Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

Erica Wagner. Bloomsbury, $28 (384p) ISBN 978-1-62040-051-7
Wagner (Ariel’s Gift), former literary editor at the Times of London, celebrates the stunning achievement of Washington Roebling, an unlikely giant of the industrial revolution, in this engrossing biography. Roebling oversaw construction of the iconic New York bridge in the 1870s and 1880s, a feat that pioneered new building methods and materials but broke his health (he got the bends from high air pressure in the underwater caissons where workers excavated the foundations). Wagner writes detailed, lucid descriptions of the technological advances that made the bridge possible, and the bewilderingly complex planning and calculations Roebling undertook to combine them into a feasible structure. Roebling had a conflicted relationship with his father, John, a brilliant engineer and inventor of the wire rope that made large suspension bridges possible; John initiated the bridge project but died before construction began. The two could be Eugene O’Neill characters: the father a tyrant who built a business empire but tormented his family with violence, quack medical regimens, and bizarre diets; the son a low-key ironist always in his father’s shadow but possessed of a meticulous intellect and dogged tenacity. Wagner grounds her fine study of the human side of industrial progress in patient devotion to science and craft. Photos. Agent: Antony Harwood, Antony Harwood Literary (U.K.). (June)
Reviewed on: 04/03/2017
Release date: 06/27/2017
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