June 12, 1806
On this day 216 years ago, the man who designed the Brooklyn Bridge was born. At the time of its building, the iconic American landmark was the longest suspension bridge in the world.
Here's the backstory — and how his daughter-in-law helped finish the project.
- Roebling was born in Mühlhausen, Prussia (now Germany). At age 18, he attended a building institute in Berlin, where his interest in suspension bridges began.
- In 1831, Roebling emigrated to the U.S. He invented strong, twisted wire cables — more durable than the cables used at the time.
- By 1867, he had designed several suspension structures, incl. the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge and the Delaware Aqueduct — “the oldest surviving suspension bridge in America” (Library of Congress).
The Brooklyn Bridge
- 1867: Roebling was hired as chief engineer for the bridge connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn.
- 1869: Roebling’s plans for the bridge were approved. However, he passed away a few months into construction after contracting tetanus due to an accident on site. His son (and business partner), Washington, took his place as chief engineer.
- 1872: Washington became ill due to working conditions on site; his wife, Emily, became a messenger between him & the engineers until the bridge’s completion in 1883.
"Roebling could wrestle thousands of tons of wood, granite and iron into beautiful and intricate monuments to humanity's capacity for energy, creativity and vision …"
Author of Engineering America: The Life and Times of John A. Roebling, Richard Haw, Ph.D. In the book’s abstract, Haw says Roebling “profoundly altered the physical landscape of America” & “believed in the moral application of science and technology, that bridges—along with other great works of connection, the Atlantic cable, the Transcontinental Railroad—could help bring people together …”
"Few people that I have ever met possessed such an amount of vital energy coupled at the same time with amazing perseverance which never rested …"
Washington Roebling, writing about his father. He continued, “We all know that mere thought without expression is useless. His every thought was put down in a drawing, a plan or in writing. He conquered everything with that wonderful personal force …”
Although John Roebling wasn’t alive to see the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge — which is still in use today — his contributions were key to the construction of functional and lasting suspension bridges beginning in the 19th century.
Visit our source page to view a program put on by the Brooklyn Historical Society, where Dr. Haw explains why he believes John Roebling “was a near perfect reflection of his time … a seeker, and a believer and an ideas man.”
Bridges Across America: The Impact of John Roebling and the Roebling Family (Center for Brooklyn History; YouTube)
Roebling and the Brooklyn Bridge (Library of Congress)
John Roebling (National Park Service)
by Jenna Lee,