Emily Warren Roebling: The accidental engineer

This is an extract from our second women in STEM anthology, More Passion For Science: Journeys into the Unknownavailable as an ebook for £1.99 from Amazon.

by Roma Agrawal

The Brooklyn Bridge, icon of New York City, is a spectacular piece of engineering. When it was built, it was a symbol of how the burgeoning city of New York saw itself: as the greatest metropolis on earth.

In the late nineteenth century, the city’s growth started to become constricted by its geography. Economic activity was concentrated on two neighbouring and densely populated islands – Manhattan and Long Island – the only way to travel between them was by boat. Some 25 years of discussion and planning went into the first physical link between the two halves of New York. When it finally opened in 1883 after decades of innovation, adventure and tragedy, the first people to cross the Brooklyn Bridge were President of the United States Chester Arthur, and a woman, Emily Warren Roebling, whose name still remains largely unknown.

“By and by it was common gossip that hers was the great mind behind the great work,” wrote David McCullough in The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge. “This, the most monumental engineering triumph of the age, was actually the doing of a woman, which as a general proposition was taken in some quarters to be both preposterous and calamitous. In truth, she had by then a thorough grasp of the engineering involved.”

Emily’s early life

In the 1870s, Emily lived with her husband, Washington Roebling, at the end of the Hudson River, where it broadens out and makes its way into the Upper Bay beyond the tip of Manhattan. She was no stranger to the river; in fact she had spent most of her childhood next to it, in its upper valley, where it cuts through a deep channel in the picturesque mountains. Emily was the second youngest of twelve children born to Sylvanus and Phebe Warren in 1843. The Warrens, although not considered wealthy, were one of the prominent families in Cold Springs, and her father was a distinguished and learned man who was keen to pass on his passion for education to his children.

From a very early age it was clear to the family that Emily was extremely intelligent and had a keen interest in science. She shared a very close relationship with her eldest brother, Gouverneur K Warren, despite their fourteen year age gap. GK Warren was the most notable member of the Warren family. He had founded the West Point Foundry, the only industry in Cold Springs, then graduated with top honours from the West Point federal military reservation, studied as an engineer and enrolled to serve in the army at 16. He was Emily’s hero. When their father died, he assumed responsibility for his family, encouraging her interest in science (botany in particular) and enrolled her in the Georgetown Visitation Convent in order to further her education. At this college preparatory school for women, she voraciously studied science, history, geography and more, and became an accomplished horsewoman, pursuing her interests in academia and hobbies alike.

In 1864, during the American Civil War, GK Warren was posted far away from the family and was unable to visit often. Emily decided instead to make the trip to see him and met one of his officers, Washington Roebling. Contrary to her usually balanced and sensible nature, she was said to have fallen in love with him at first sight and six weeks later he bought her a diamond ring. They never had second thoughts about each other, and he used to write to her addressing her as “Mrs Wash”, telling her, “You know, darling, that your presence always made me feel so good, a kind of contented feeling pervaded me if only you were near. It was not necessary to say anything, perfect silence was as much companionship as the liveliest chatter.”

Throughout the war, she wrote long affectionate letters full of details of her life, but he destroyed them soon after he read them, saying that the letters made their separation much more painful to him. She, however, saved everything he wrote to her and in less than a year had over one hundred letters containing all his thoughts, fears and affections. She visited his family while he was fighting and they took a great liking to her. Finally, after eleven months of correspondence, Emily and Washington Roebling were married on 18 January 1865, embarking on what would be an adventurous and testing life together. Roebling stepped seamlessly and gracefully into the role of a typical Victorian housewife: tending to house, husband and family in the shadows of her gifted husband.

After the war ended, they travelled to Europe where their only child was born. Washington Roebling’s father, John Augustus Roebling, was an accomplished engineer and Washington too planned to follow in his successful father’s footsteps. In Europe, Washington began conducting technical research on methods of building pneumatic caissons. Caissons are watertight retaining structures which can be used to build the foundations of a bridge. They are constructed such that the water can be pumped out to maintain a dry working environment. Where there is soft mud present, pneumatic caissons are used which penetrate the mud, are sealed at the top and filled with compressed air to keep water and soil out. An airlock provides the workers with access to the chamber.

These literally ground-breaking innovations were used to install foundations for bridges by allowing access to areas below ground or water. Washington began to consider the use of explosives in the confined spaces, a method of building which had never been used before. Roebling began to assist her husband’s research, studying it alongside him and using the scientific method she held dear during her college days to understand bridge engineering. Little did she realise at the time that the dangers of working in the highly-pressured environment of a caisson would eventually lead to a catastrophic change in their lives, one from which Roebling and her husband would both emerge different people.

Family tragedies

For most of New York’s history and until the late 19th century, there were no land connections between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Severe winters and poor travelling conditions led to popular pressure for a solution. A bill for chartering the New York Bridge Company to improve this situation was met with relief and enthusiasm from the residents of New York. In 1865, John Roebling was appointed to design and make estimates for a suspension bridge over the East River. A company was set up to oversee the project and arrange for funds, which were to be split between the City of New York and the City of Brooklyn, along with private investors.

Two years later, John began to lead the entire project. Following extensive review of his plans and designs by other engineers and all stakeholders, site preparation commenced in January 1870, and the citizens of New York and Brooklyn waited excitedly to see the first stages of construction begin on site. But then the first tragedy struck. An accident on site left him with tetanus and he died two weeks later; he didn’t live to see the first stone of his spectacular structure laid.

Washington was the natural successor to his father, as they had worked together on previous projects and he assisted in developing the plans for the Brooklyn Bridge. The research he had carried out in Europe, along with the other bridges he had designed, gave him the perfect set of skills needed to see the project through. Washington took on the role of Chief Engineer on the project, and began the challenging task of overseeing the project.

Tragedy struck again, however, in December 1871. While working in the revolutionary pneumatic caissons, Washington became a victim of ‘caisson’s disease’ or ‘the bends’ as it is more commonly known. There was little understanding of the dangers of moving from high to low pressure environments quickly because the caissons were being used for the first time in this way. He was left partially paralysed, bedridden and dejected, fearing that he would be unable to act in his role of Chief Engineer.

A project in jeopardy

The future of the bridge and the Roeblings’ lives together was now in trouble. Washington was in constant suffering and severely depressed. Only he held the knowledge and ability to oversee construction of the project in his father’s place. However, his physical condition made it impossible for him to be actively involved. His mental state left him loathe to speak to anyone except Emily. His struggle to carry out normal tasks on a day-to-day basis left him in despair, never mind trying to carry out his responsibilities on the build. The years of design and planning that the Roeblings had put into the structure would be lost, and the family’s personal sacrifice would all be in vain as a new strategy to manage the construction of this pioneering and expensive structure was sought.

Roebling had spent a long time with her husband and father-in-law hearing about bridge design and engineering and even assisting with technical research, and the idea occurred that she might be able to act as her husband’s eyes and ears on the project. However, the thought of a woman being involved in an engineering project, acting on behalf of Washington and perhaps even leading it, was unheard of. Indeed, many didn’t believe that a woman’s brain was even able to study and understand complex mathematical and engineering problems, and the stakeholders were unlikely to take her seriously.

And apart from the doubts and mistrust that everyone from the builders on site to the investors would place on Roebling, did she herself have the confidence and resolve needed to act as a liaison between her husband and the site, let alone take over the many-faceted role of Chief Engineer?

The accidental engineer

With some background in science but without any detailed knowledge of bridge design, Roebling began by taking extensive notes from her husband in the fear that he would not live to see the bridge completed. Washington noted, “I thought I would succumb, but I had a strong tower to lean upon, my wife, a woman of infinite tact and wisest counsel.”

Shortly afterwards, Roebling took over all correspondence on her husband’s behalf, regularly writing to the bridge offices. Suspicions began to mount among the engineers and workers. Was she only taking notes and brushing up Washington’s grammar as was being claimed, or was she doing more? Clearly for Roebling, merely taking notes was not enough. She looked back to her education and the trips she been on with her husband. She realised that she had a basic knowledge and understanding of science and wondered whether she would be able to take up the momentous challenge of overseeing the completion of the bridge. Slowly, but with unwavering focus, she started her study of complex mathematics and engineering, learning about material strength, cable analysis and construction, and calculating catenary curves. She was determined to see her family’s legacy built.

You can read this rest of this chapter in More Passion For Science: Journeys into the Unknownavailable as an ebook for £1.99 from Amazon.

About the author

Roma Agrawal is described as “the new voice of women talking about science and engineering and making it cool” by The Telegraph and the “most prolific [of] women in engineering tweeters” by The Guardian. She is a structural engineer and has worked with signature architects during her ten year career designing footbridges, towers and sculptures, including six years on The Shard, the tallest tower in Western Europe.

A multiple award winner, both for her technical prowess and her contribution to raising awareness of engineering as a career, she was given the ‘Diamond Award for Engineering Excellence’ by the Association for Consultancy and Engineering. She has appeared as an expert in documentaries and has been featured in many UK broadsheets, magazines and online; on the BBC, ITV, has given a TEDx talk about the engineering ‘brand’, and was selected as a ‘Leading Lady’ in the M&S campaign 2014.

Outside work, she actively promotes engineering, scientific and technical careers to young people and particularly to under-represented groups such as women. She is an ambassador of the ‘Your Life’ campaign, working with the government and industry to increase the number of students studying maths and physics. Over the last 4 years, she has spoken to thousands of people at schools, universities and festivals across the country and abroad.

Website: RomaTheEngineer.com
Twitter: @RomaTheEngineer