A City Divided: The History of the Berlin Wall

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
– Former President Ronald Reagan; Berlin, 12th of June, 1987.

There are a lot of famous walls throughout history. Hadrian’s Wall. The Great Wall of China. The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem…but walls are built for a lot of reasons. To protect, to defend, to hold up an important building…or to seperate a people. In this last category we have one of the most famous walls of all. The Berliner Mauer…the Berlin Wall.

For those born after the era of the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall is something you read about in your history-books. It sure as hell was something I read in my history-books when I was in school even though when I was born, the Berlin Wall was still up. It’s a structure that’s fascinated me because it’s something that we imagine was built a long time ago and which was pulled down a long time ago and was significant a long time ago…but ain’t anymore, which is why it’s in the history books. But it wasn’t! It was still around when I was a kid, even if I wasn’t aware of it. And that was just a little over twenty years ago, which is a tick of a clock in the eyes of history. So what was the Berlin Wall? Where did it come from? What was it for? How did it come down and how did you get to the other side?

The Berlin Wall was a product of the Cold War that started escalating as soon as the ‘hot’ Second World War started cooling down in 1945. To understand where the wall came from, we need to crank the clock back over sixty years to the close of World War Two and what happened immediately after it.

Berlin, Germany, 1945

Japan is defeated. Germany has surrendered. The nuclear bombs have blasted Hiroshima and Nagasaki into the history books and the German capital of Berlin has been pulverised to rubble. It has been shelled, bombed and blasted for days and weeks on end by Allied bomber-planes and Russian field-artillery during the Battle of Berlin. The Allies have steamrollered in against the desperate and pathetic defences thrown up by the Nazis that consist of Hitler Youth divisions and World War One veterans pressed into service for the ‘Fatherland’. The Soviet Hammer and Sickle flag flies over the Reichstag, the German parliament building. The war is over.

…or not.

The moment the Second World War ended, another war started. A war between ideologies. Between the capitalists and the communists. The Western Allies were not idiots. The Germans had started the Franco-Prussian War, the First World War and the Second World War. And the Allies weren’t about to let the Krauts have another crack at the cannons, so to ensure they couldn’t, the German nation was occupied.

Germany was split in two. The Americans, the British and the French took joint control of West Germany while the Soviets took control of East Germany. So far, so good. But what to do with the German capital city of Berlin? The problem was that Berlin was located smack bang in the middle of East Germany. The Allies refused to allow the capital to become communist, so the city too, was divided up. Eventually, Germany and its capital were split into two camps. On the West was the Federal Republic of Germany. On the East was the German Democratic Republic. The names sound very similar, but how they operated was very different.

The Berlin Airlift; 1948

Trying to sieze control of the German capital, the Soviets attempted to starve Berlin into submission. All road transport and rail transport to Berlin was cut off. Roads and railway lines were barricaded and utility-supplies were cut off. The Allies were not happy. They wanted their slice of Berlin. And they wanted it now.

Berlin was no longer seen as the ‘enemy’. It was not Nazified anymore. It was an ordinary city just like any other. But it was a city that wanted to be free and capitalist and which was being held hostage by the Reds who wanted it all for themselves. The people of Berlin were trapped in a hole.

It was to save the citizens of Berlin that the Allies started the ambitious ‘Berlin Airlift’ in 1948. The airlift was nothing less than dozens of day-and-night deliveries of food, clothing and other supplies to the city of Berlin by air, from West Germany to East Germany. The Soviets were trying to starve the city into submission and the West wasn’t about to let that happen. The airlift began.

The Berlin Airlift ran from June, 1948 until April of 1949. During those few months, Western planes flew over Berlin, dropping parachute-lowered supplies of food to the people of Berlin. Everything from milk to bread to chocolate bars were dropped into Berlin to keep the morale of the people high and their bodies healthy. The airlift was a big success and a total humiliation to the Soviets who thought that they could overpower the West and keep a stranglehold on the German capital. When the Soviets realised that the West would not stop with its airlift, they had to admit defeat and the blockade on Berlin was lifted.

It was after this time that Berlin was divided into two cities, informally at first, but as time went on, in more and more physical ways.

Berlin: Gateway to the West (1949-1961)

When the Soviet blockade of Berlin failed, the Soviets had to bow to pressure from the West to divide Berlin between the Capitalists and the Communists, just like the rest of the country. This division formally took place in 1949. For the next forty-one years, West Berlin would become an island of capitalism amid a sea of communism, surrounded on all sides by East Berlin and East Germany. East Berlin, by comparison, became part of the Soviet Union, a prison city with its people under siege. If you think that Berliners were all cool with this and just went back to building luxury cars, eating bratwurst and watching soccer on TV…then let me correct you.

Berliners were terrified of living under the heel of the Soviets. They had absolutely no desire at all to live in a Soviet city. They wanted out. And they wanted out NOW. Between 1949 and 1961, thousands of East Berlin citizens fled to the West. They moved across the border, they took the subway to Western stations and they packed everything into their cars and drove! Berliners were getting scared off and the Soviets were getting pissed off. Not only did thousands of fleeing civilians make the Soviets look big and scary and mean…which they probably were…but it also meant that a lot of vital manpower and skilled labour was running out of East Berlin as fast as their feet could take them! There was no Berlin Wall during these years of the city’s history and East Berliners could flee to the West with relative ease, however, Berliners weren’t the only people running.

Germans fleeing the Soviets wasn’t just confined to the citizens of Berlin. East-Germans everywhere were fleeing from the Soviets, not just those living in the capital. However where East Germans could flee to was confined to Berlin. If this is confusing, then let me explain.

People living in East Germany, controlled by the Soviets, wanted to get out of Soviet territory into Western territory, where they felt safe. Only, they couldn’t go from East Germany to West Germany due to travel-restrictions. However, there was no reason why the Soviets should restrict travel within East Germany. And Berlin was in East Germany. So Germans wanting to flee the Soviets went to Berlin instead. And they entered the city through East Berlin and then went to West Berlin, where they could fly out of the city and over Soviet Germany to the capitalist West Germany, nice and far away from the Reds. It was a roundabout way of escaping the Soviets, but it did work. And it was something that the Soviets were wising up to. And they weren’t having any of it.

See, once you got into Berlin, it was easy to get to the West. There was no barrier and once you got the paperwork you could just go across, or you could simply hop on the Berlin subway system and take a train that was going to a West Berlin station. It was pretty easy. The Soviets were worried that it was too easy. They were worrying about a ‘brain drain’ on East Germany. They were scared that all the talent, knowledge, brains and know-how of the East Germans would flood into the West leaving East Germany and East Berlin as a dried up husk of a place full of idiots. So to stop this, they built a wall.

The Berlin Wall; 1961

Even though there had been tension between the Soviets and the West ever since the end of the Second World War in 1945, it wasn’t until 1961 that the Soviets actually tried in any serious capacity, to stop people from getting to the West. This all changed on the night of the 12th of August, 1961. That evening, the order was given for the border between East and West Berlin to be officially closed and for a wall to be erected. In the truest form of German efficiency, the wall was put up in record time! By six o’clock in the morning of the 13th of August…Berlin was a city divided. A wall ran all the way from the northern border of Berlin down the middle of the city to the south of Berlin. People in East Berlin suddenly realised that the Soviets were serious about keeping them penned in, and they were not happy.

1961; Building the Berlin Wall

What some people may not know is that the Berlin Wall was not just one wall. It was a series of walls. Berliner Mauer Model A came out in 1961 as a simple, slap-up overnight job of wood, brick, concrete blocks and barbed wire. People who were desperate or quick-witted enough, could still get across to the West. They got through the wall by pushing or cutting away the barbed wire fences and running to the West, they even used car-bombs to blast holes in the wall so that they could get through. They rushed checkpoints and some people even just climbed out the window! Yes it’s true.

See, to make the wall in 1961 in record time, the East German army took a few shortcuts. Where possible, they followed roads and streets to make the wall as straight and as short as possible. They incorporated the walls of buildings into this first generation of the wall so as to speed up construction. But what they probably forgot was that…buildings have doors and windows…duh!

So when East Berliners woke up and found themselves imprisoned, some citizens realised that their houses and apartment blocks had been incorporated into this new wall. What did they do? They packed their suitcases and jumped out the window or broke open their own front doors, ran across the street and over to the West. The Soviets were quick to see the loophole in their design, however, and quickly bricked up windows and doorframes that opened out into West Berlin.

In the early days of the Berlin Wall, it wasn’t so much a wall as it was a fence. Because the wall was put up so fast, the East German soldiers used the simplest materials to build it. Cinderblocks, barbed wire and bricks. In some areas of the wall, the only thing keeping East and West Berliners apart was a few feet of barbed wire stretched out across a road. People who were brave or desperate enough, could just jump over the wire into the West. That’s exactly what East German soldier Conrad Schumann did on the 15th of August, 1961. That’s him up there in that photograph, jumping over the barbed wire division between East and West, defecting from Soviet Germany to the capitalist West. Schumann wasn’t the only person to do this, however. Hundreds of people took advantage in one way or another, of the hasty construction of this first version of the Berlin Wall, to change their lives forever…and in most cases, for the better.

Berlin’s historic Brandenburg Gate is right in the middle of the city. This photo taken in mid-August, 1961, shows East German soldiers forming a human blockade in front of the gate, preventing East-to-West migration after the border was officially declared closed

The Berlin Wall; 1962-1965

Like I mentioned above, the Berlin Wall was not one single structure. It was several structures that changed, evolved and which were torn down and rebuilt several times over the years. By 1962, a second, more permanent wall was being built between East and West Berlin. The Soviets could see that their initial barrier was not working and that it needed strengthening. Between 1962 and 1965, the second and eventually, third versions of the Berlin Wall were constructed, not of bricks or cinderblocks, but of huge slabs of concrete that were tough, high and impossible to blast through, ram with cars or climb over. Anyone who did try to climb over the wall was impeded by a smooth, cylindrical drainage-pipe which the East-Germans put on top of the wall. The smooth curved surface on top of the wall made it impossible for people climbing over to get a grip and pull themselves up, over and into West Berlin. It was around this time that the wall was also lengthened as well as strengthened.

Eventually, by the early 1970s, the Berlin Wall didn’t just divide the city, it completely encircled it. The entirety of West Berlin was surrounded by a huge, twelve-foot high wall of solid concrete sections that completely cut it off from all of East Germany that was around it on all sides…to say nothing of it also cutting it off from East Berlin.

Getting Through the Wall

Life in Soviet Berlin is hardly pleasant. The East Berlin secret police, the Stasi, keep tabs on everyone. Who they are, what they do, where they live, who they know, what their jobs are, where they are, where they’re going and why they’re going there and what they intend to do once they’ve reached there. Up to one third of the East Berlin population is under surveillance by the Stasi at its peak. Apart from the presence of an oppressive police-state, the quality of living in East Berlin is a pale imitation of life in the West. Although legally still under Allied occupation, people in West Berlin enjoy the latest entertainment, inventions and consumer-goods.

In East Berlin (and indeed, in most of the Soviet Union), basic household necesities are in short supply. Whitegoods for the home, automobiles, televisions and other appliances and machinery that the West take for granted are sold to the East Berliners on a first-come, first-serve basis. People have to go on waiting-lists that can last for weeks…months…even years…before they can even think of buying something that their Western counterparts could go out and buy at the shop the next day. The severe shortage of Soviet-made consumer-goods means that life under communism is hardly the “Worker’s Paradise” that the Soviets were hoping to achieve.

In the early days of the existence of the Berlin Wall, getting across to the West was relatively easy. You just needed a bit of luck and good timing. But after the first few weeks and months, the Berlin Wall has become an imposing and impassable barrier. Getting across is much harder. People get through by using forged identity and travel-permits and passports, they dig tunnels, they’re smuggled through the checkpoints in automobiles; two families gather up a whole heap of cloth and even floated over the Wall to the West using a homemade hot-air balloon! But nobody actually climbs over the wall to escape to the West, and here’s why…

The Berlin Wall; 1975

In 1975, the fourth and final version of the Berlin Wall was constructed. This wall is less like a simple wall and more like the impenetrable perimeter-fence of a maximum-security prison. It consists of two huge walls, watch-towers, trip-wires, barbed-wire fences, ditches, machine-guns, spotlights and vehicular-traps to prevent cars getting through. Between the two walls that made up this great barrier, apart from the tripwires, guns, searchlights, sirens, barbed-wire fences and the guards, there was also a kill-zone and even attack-dogs on long leashes! As you can see, getting across conventionally was not going to be easy, and 171 people died trying to do it. The most famous person who gave his life to freedom in this dramatic way was an 18-year-old East Berlin teenager…

Peter Fechter and his friend, Helmut Kulbeik attempted to jump Berlin Wall #2 in 1962. Kulbeik made it across safely but Fechter was shot in the leg by East Berlin guards. Although only a single shot was fired, the bullet severed a major artery in his injured leg and Fechter would bleed to death on the Soviet side of the wall, just a few feet from freedom. Western powers were outraged, but could do nothing to help him get across due to the threat of Soviet violence. The photograph above was taken by a Western photographer as Fechter lay bleeding on the ground. His body was eventually removed by East Berlin authorities.

A diagram showing what the Berlin Wall looked like, ca. 1980

The Berlin Wall; 1989

By the 1980s, generations of Berliners and people around the world had grown up with the Berlin Wall. It was a part of their lives. It was a part of world affairs. It was a part of Berlin. Nobody ever envisioned a day when it might not be a part of their lives, the news, the world at large or a part of Berlin. It had simply been there too long for it to suddenly just disappear! And even if it was going to be pulled down, it would take some huge, amazing, monumental and earthshaking events to even get the Soviets thinking about such a ludicrous thing…right?

Well probably. We’ll never know. Because that’s not how the wall came down. Believe it or not but the fall of the infamous Berlin Wall happened quite literally by accident.

It is the 9th of November, 1989. The Berlin Wall has fallen! People are streaming across the border between East and West Berlin. A momentous and historic occasion! But how did it happen?

To understand, we need to backtrack a few weeks. In August of 1989, other countries in the Eastern Bloc are beginning to relax travel restrictions, even if East Germany is not. Border controls between Austria and Hungary are relaxed. People start moving freely between these two countries. Amongst these people are East Germans. While in Hungary, East Germans take refuge in the West-German embassy in Budapest, not wanting to go back to East Germany. This show of resistence sparks off a series of protests throughout East Germany by people who want to be free. East German travel-restrictions are amongst the tightest in the Soviet Union and the people are getting tired of them. Not wanting a full-scale riot on their hands, East German authorities decided to allow for a relaxation of travel-restrictions between East and West Germany. This relaxation of such restrictions was supposed to start on the 17th of November, 1989. But it all went wrong from there.

The person charged with the job of spreading the news about the relaxed travel-restrictions between East and West Germany was a man named Gunter Schabowski, an official working for the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, the communist party that ruled over East Germany during the Soviet era. Schabowski had been told about the relaxation of travel-restrictions…a last-ditch attempt by East German politicians to stop the rising tensions in East Germany…but he had not been fully briefed on when these relaxations of restrictions were to take effect.

On the 9th of November, 1989, Schabowski was a member of a panel being interviewed in a live televised press-conference which was meant to spread word about these modified travel-restrictions. Not in full posession of all the facts, Schabowski was unprepared to give a proper answer when, after announcing the plan to relax travel-restrictions, a journalist asked a single, simple question.


Unaware of the actual date (17th of November), Schabowski consults his papers. Mumbling and fumbling for time, he accidently says “Immediately!”.

And that was the simple accident that caused the downfall of the Berlin Wall.

His one word sealed the Wall’s doom. Within hours, hundreds of East Berliners were charging towards the crossing-points between East and West Berlin, along the length of the Berlin Wall. They had heard about the opening of the border and they wanted out of East Germany and into West Germany. And they wanted it now! Border-guards were caught off-guard by the rush of hundreds and eventually thousands of people. Unable to hold their posts and been given no instructions not to let people go through, the guards opened the gates allowing thousands of people to stream from East Berlin into West Berlin! The Wall was now starting to fall.

The famous ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ border-crossing of the Berlin Wall; November 9th, 1989

Over the next few weeks and months, Berliners from both sides of the city would crowd at the wall to meet, greet and party and to celebrate the hopeful reunification of their city and their country, split in half by nearly fifty years of opposing political camps. People even showed up at the Wall carrying sledgehammers, pickaxes, jackhammers and drills. These were the “Wall Woodpeckers”, ordinary civilians who had come along to quite literally get a piece of the action. Over the next months and years, the Berlin Wall would be torn down, bit by bit, piece by piece, yard by yard. While most of it would be torn down with mechanised help, several Berliners hack into the structure of oppression with ordinary hand-tools, chipping off chunks of the Wall to keep as souveniers.

The Wall Today

The majority of the Berlin Wall was pulled down during the early 1990s as people rushed to bring an end to communism in Germany. Some sections still remain, although these are few and far between. In Berlin today, a cobblestone line runs through the city, marking the path that the Wall once took through the streets of the German capital.

A segment of the Berlin Wall (left, with all the graffitti) in central Berlin today


The Story of the Brooklyn Bridge: A Roebling Family Production

The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most famous landmarks in the Five Boroughs of New York City. For over a hundred years, it has been the main crossing-point of the East River for New Yorkers and Brooklynites, heading to each other’s part of town for work and play. Yet, in the scope of history, the Brooklyn bridge hasn’t been around that long at all. When its construction was finished in 1883, it was the biggest suspension-bridge in the United States, but the story behind its construction is one that is even more amazing that the structure that resulted from it. It took fourteen years, hundreds of men, cost one man his life, another man his mobility and thrust an unprepared housewife into the harrowing man’s world of engineering, construction and design, a world which she knew nothing about. This is the story of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Before the Bridge

New York City in the 1860s was a powerhouse. Being at the gateway to the United States from the Atlantic Ocean, it received thousands of immigrants who travelled to the New World from the old one, seeking work, freedom, wealth and prosperity. As a result, New York City’s population skyrocketed. From 49,000 in 1790 to 1,478,100 people in 1870. Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island were overflowing with people, and more people were coming every year. The end of the Civil War and the freedom of the slaves meant that there was a massive migration to the North which swelled New York City’s ranks. A full 300,000 people flooded into the Five Boroughs between 1860-1870 and New York was struggling to cope. There were few bridges crossing the Hudson and East Rivers, and people travelling between Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan relied largely on river-ferries.

A map of Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, dated 1860. The lack of bridges meant that commuters had to take long, slow boat-rides across the East River to reach their destinations

River-ferries were slow and inefficient, hardly suitable for an emerging economic powerhouse such as New York. What was needed was a bridge. A real bridge. Something that would stand the test of time and that would allow New Yorkers to travel to and from Manhattan as they pleased without hindrance from water. What they needed was a man named John Augustus Roebling.

The Roebling Family

The Roebling Family came from Germany. J.A. Roebling’s original name was Johann August Robling and he was born in Germany in July of 1806. By the 1860s, Roebling had moved to America and had established himself as a wealthy and prominent civil engineer. It was his ambition to build a bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan and spare Manhattanites and Brooklynites the daily commute by ferry between the two boroughs. By the late 1860s, Roebling was a civil engineer of considerable experience, having already built several successful suspension-bridges. It was after the American Civil War that he decided that New York City required a proper crossing of the East River. Such an important American city could not possibly survive on slow, inefficient and river-choking ferries to transport its citizens back and forth from home to work every day. They needed a bridge so that they could walk, ride and drive across the river between home and work and save time on their daily communte and be more productive members of society.

Sadly, John Roebling never saw the finished product of the dream that he had. In 1869, while walking along the riverbank of the East River, he became the victim of a horrific ferry-accident. He was scouting for possible locations where the bridge’s two towers would be built when a passenger-ferry crashed into the ferry-landing where he was standing, crushing one of his feet and leaving him paralysed. His toes were amputated from his foot but Roebling refused to have his injury treated further, believing in water-therapy to cure him instead. Water-therapy involved a continual drip of cold, clean water onto the wound; this was supposed to keep the area clean and uninfected. Unfortunately it didn’t work and Roebling died on the 22nd of July, 1869, aged just 63.

After his death, John Roebling’s son, Washington Roebling (born 1837, died 1926) became the chief engineer in charge of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Washington was thirty-two when his father died, but had already seen much of life. He had been a soldier in the United States Army (the Union) during the Civil War and had seen much action, especially during the Battle of Gettysburg. Washington had originally been Assistant-Engineer, with his father being Chief Engineer, but after John’s death, Washington found out that he had been promoted!

Construction of the Bridge

Even back in 1869, construction was never going to be a cheap task. $1,500,000 (one and a half million dollars) had been set aside as construction-costs for the Brooklyn Bridge and six hundred workers were recruited to help build this monumental structure. It would take fourteen years and twenty-seven men would die in the process.

Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge started on the Second of January of 1870 on the Brooklyn side of the East River, with the construction of the Brooklyn-side bridge-tower. As this was going to be a suspension-bridge, the two towers that would hold the cables that would hold up the bridge’s roadway were going to be the most crucial parts of the bridge’s construction. They had to be phenomenally tall and incredibly strong and stable. To do this, the towers would have to be sunk right down through the riverbed, down to the bedrock that lay below. The towers weighed a staggering 120,000,000lbs each, or 60,000 tons apiece!

To achieve this, Washington Roebling ordered the construction of caissons. A caisson is a sealed, watertight, airtight chamber. This chamber, made of wood, would be dumped into the East River, over the proposed site of the tower. It would be sunk down to the riverbed and then all the water inside the caisson would be pumped out. Men could enter the caisson and work in the massive air-bubble that was left behind, digging out the foundations. As the foundations were dug, the caisson would sink deeper and deeper, until they reached bedrock.

But you try this in your bathtub at home. Get a drinking-glass, invert it and force it underwater. Then, let go. The air-pocket trapped inside the upturned glass would force it upwards. It would pop and float up to the top before filling with water and sinking again. If this happened to the caisson, dozens, even hundreds of men, would die, drowned in a matter of seconds as water rushes into the flooding caisson.

To combat this potentially lethal problem, while one set of men dug out the foundations, another set of men would start building the Brooklyn-side tower for the bridge on top of the caisson. As the tower grew progressively higher, its weight would cause it to sink below the waterline and this would keep the caisson in position, preventing it from being forced up to the surface by the air-pressure inside. Once the caisson reached the bedrock and had been embedded sufficiently into it, the caisson would be evacuated and then flooded with cement to seal it and create a solid foundation.

The caissons used for the sinking of the bridge-tower foundations were marvels of engineering in themselves. They contained two shafts for pumping out water, two shafts for men to go into and out of the bottom of the caisson, two supply-shafts to haul away excavated material and send down tools and other excavating-equipment and pipes for air, clean drinking-water and even gas-pipes to provide lighting!

A diagram drawn by Washington Roebling, detailing the interiors of the caissons

Working Underwater

Working under water is scary for anyone. But try working under water in a dark, damp, wooden chamber, buried over fifty feet down under water, mud and sand. This was the reality faced by the hundreds of excavation-workers who dug out the foundations for the Brooklyn-side tower of the Brooklyn Bridge. Progress was frustratingly slow. Six inches a WEEK was considered top speed. And to achieve that six-inches-a-week rate, apart from excavating enough debris from below, workers on top of the caisson had to mortar and lay three courses (levels) of stone to provide sufficient weight to force the caisson down far enough into that six inches. Not enough weight and a serious blowout could occur. In fact, a blowout did occur in autumn of 1870. Soil, rocks and sand were ejected out of the caisson and were blasted five hundred feet into the sky!

Apart from the threats posed by water down in the caissons, there was also the threat of fire. Even though the caisson was literally surrounded on all sides by water, the hot, sweaty, dim atmosphere inside the caisson was just ripe for fire. In December of 1870, a fire was discovered burning inside the Brooklyn caisson. Men with fire-hoses and water-pumps struggled to put it out. If the structural integrity of the caisson was compromised, water could come gushing in. Or even worse, the caisson could weaken, causing the Brooklyn bridge-tower to come crashing down through the caisson-roof, into the river, killing the men instantly, crushing them under tons of bricks, stone, cement and mortar!

The other major danger of working underwater and so far underground is one that is familiar to many divers. In the day of the Roeblings, this was an unknown illness, a mysterious medical condition that seemed to come from nowhere, but which played havoc with the workmen’s health. Today, we call it “Decompression Sickness” or “The Bends”.

In Roebling’s day, it was called “Caisson Disease” or “Caisson Sickness”.

“Caisson’s Disease” was caused by the differing air-pressures inside and outside of the caissons and the differing air-pressures that arose due to the great depths that the men had to travel to reach the bottom of the caissons. In March of 1871, the Brooklyn-side caisson of the bridge had reached bedrock. The caisson was flooded with cement and sealed shut while work continued to complete the rest of the tower. At the same time, construction began on the Manhattan-side tower and caisson.

Like many engineers, Roebling had a very hands-on approach to his work. He spent several hours a day, several days a week, several weeks a year down in the caissons, keeping an eye on day-to-day construction. This constant abuse of his body and prolonged affects of ‘Caisson Sickness’ had disasterous effects. He became paralysed and was bound to a wheelchair as a paraplegic for the rest of his life. Unable to work anymore, Washington Roebling could do nothing but sit in his bedroom at his Brooklyn Heights apartment and watch the construction of his family’s masterpiece through a telescope.

Behind Every Great Man is a Great Woman

This is an oft-used phrase, but fewer times has it been more true than in this instance. And not only was there a great woman behind this great man, but a great woman who did great things, not only for her great man, but for the great city where she and her husband lived and worked.

Emily Warren Roebling.

Emily was Washington’s wife. In 1872 when Washington became paralysed due to Caisson Sickness, Emily not only cared for her husband, but also became his “assistant engineer”. She oversaw the daily running of the bridge’s construction, she relayed Washington’s orders to his on-site assistants and made sure that everything ran as smoothly as possible.

And she was only twenty-nine years old.

Washington was not idle in his wheelchair, though. He knew that if his wife was going to help him to complete the bridge that his father had designed and that he was constructing, she was going to have to know as much as he did. By degrees, Washington taught his wife anything and everything that he (and probably any other civil engineer at that time) knew about how to construct a suspension-bridge. Emily drank it all in and became determined to see the bridge completed.

The construction of the towers took years. It wasn’t until 1875 and 1876 that the Brooklyn and Manhattan towers were completed. And even then, the bridge was only a third completed! They still had to do the roadways and all the cables!

The cables are the most important part of any suspension-bridge. They hold up the road-deck that allows traffic to cross what’s underneath the bridge. If the cables fail, then the bridge collapses. Imagine then, this catastrophe: A world-famous bridge made of inferior steel cables which could snap at any second, sending hundreds of people to their deaths within a matter of minutes.

That was the fate of the Brooklyn Bridge, and would be now, and would have been a long time ago, were it not for swift and decisive intervention.

Wanting to cut corners and save money, unscrupulous assistants and business-partners of the Roeblings were attempting to line their pockets with cash by using substandard steel cables to hold up the roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge. Steel was deliberately purchased that was cheap in price and poor in quality. When the deception was discovered, there was uproar. It was 1878 and the “H.M.S Pinafore” by Gilbert and Sullivan was premiering in London. Construction on the Brooklyn Bridge continued as always, until one of the steel cables on the bridge…snapped.

There was an immediate police-investigation. Whoever was supplying substandard cables for the bridge had to be found out and dealt with…harshly. If the bridge was completed with such inferior materials, it was putting peoples’ lives at risk! What if the bridge collapsed during peak rush-hour? Or when there was a ship passing underneath it? The J. Lloyd Haigh Company, manufacturer and supplier of steel cables, was found at fault and other cable-suppliers were soon found to replace it. Construction on the roadways continued smoothly for the next several years. J. L. Haigh himself was convicted for his fraudulent activities concerning the substandard steel cables and was jailed in 1880.

By 1882, with his health still not improving, Washington Roebling was in serious danger of losing his job. It was by a narrow vote, and much campaigning, imploring and speechmaking by his wife, Emily, that Washington was allowed to keep his position as Chief Engineer.

Completion of the Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883. The official opening day was the 24th of May, at 2:00pm. Barricades were erected, police-officers lined the streets and spanned across the approaches to the bridge to prevent unauthorised access. Shops closed, bells tolled and people from all over came to witness this grand event…including President Chester A. Arthur. The Irish in New York started rioting because the 24th of May was also the birthday of Queen Victoria!

In honour of her efforts in seeing the bridge’s completion through to the end, Mrs. Emily Warren Roebling was to be the first person to cross the new structure. In a carriage, Emily was driven across the bridge and the first crossing of the East River was declared officially open.

This was a big event. The toll for crossing the bridge on the Opening Day was one penny. This was increased to three pennies for every day thereafter. 150,300 people walked across Brooklyn Bridge on its first day, and 1,800 vehicles drove across it! That’s a phenomenal amount, when you consider that the bridge was only opened to traffic at 5:00pm that afternoon!

Brooklyn Bridge Facts

The Brooklyn Bridge is so famous and so easily recognisable that there’s bound to be lots of fact and fiction about it. Here’s some of the factual stuff…

– The Brooklyn Bridge has four main cables, each one is 15.75in thick.
– The steel cables were designed to be six times stronger than necessary to hold the bridge and its traffic. Tests done by Roebling himself determined that the substandard steel already in use before the scandal was discovered, was five times stronger than necessary. This was considered sufficient, but Roebling still insisted on changing steel-suppliers.
– 27 workers died in the bridge’s construction.
– The Brooklyn Bridge broke the world record for being the first bridge to have steel cables (all the others had cables of iron).
– It was once rumored that the bridge was going to collapse. This caused a stampede that killed a dozen people. Circus ringmaster P.T. Barnum sent twenty-one of his circus-elephants across the bridge to prove its strength to the public.


Lighting the Way: The Light on Bell Rock

What’s some of the most dangerous working-conditions you can think of? Cleaning the blades of a jet-engine? Jackhammering rocks off a cliff-face? Repairing overhead powerlines? Crab-catching in the North Atlantic? Working in a gas-station convenience-store at 2:00am?

How about building a lighthouse on a rock in the middle of the ocean? How about building a lighthouse on a rock in the middle of the ocean where the tide can come surging in at a moment’s notice to a depth deep enough to drown you in a matter of minutes, every single day of the year? How about building a lighthouse on a rock in the middle of the ocean with killer tides and huge, scary storms that swamp the rock for half the time in the year?

Interested? Read on.

Bell Rock, Scotland

Inchcape, or ‘Bell Rock’ is a tiny, Godforsaken piece of crap, stuck off the east coast of Scotland. ‘Bell Rock’, the common nickname for Inchcape, is a particularly dangerous stretch of rocky reefs which for centuries, had been a hazard for local shipping plying trade along the eastern Scottish coastline. The rock’s notoriety for destroying anything that dared sneeze at it, is legendary. In the 1300s, the Abbott of Arbroath, a town in the district of Angus, in eastern Scotland, tried to install a warning-bell on the reef, to alert passing ships. The bell lasted the grand total of one year, before, depending on which sources you read, the bell was either washed away by the sea, or was stolen by unscrupulous pirates. For whatever reason that the bell-buoy disappeared, its legacy lingered in the reef’s current name of ‘Bell Rock’. For the next four hundred-odd years, Bell Rock continued to claim more and more lives as ships sailed unknowingly over the reef, running aground on it and splitting open. Due to the local tides and the bad weather to be encountered in Scotland, the reef is often invisible, submerged beneath several feet of foaming sea-water, to appear only for a few hours each day for only a few months each year.

Bell Rock was proving more and more dangerous as the centuries rolled by. By the close of the 1700s, it was estimated that the rock claimed upwards of six ships every year. On a particularly bad night, up to seventy ships were lost in one storm alone!

Robert Stevenson was a young man at the close of the 18th century. Born in 1772, he was in his early thirties when in 1804, the HMS York, a huge, 64-gun warship, ran aground on Bell Rock. The waves smashed the ship to pieces, killing the entire crew onboard (nearly 500 men). The governing body whose job it was to approve the construction of warning-lights, the Northern Lighthouse Board, had been bombarded by Stevenson for years, to build a light on Bell Rock, but they had always refused him. It would be impossible to build a lighthouse under such dangerous conditions and it would cost far too much money! 42,684 pounds sterling and 8 shillings…and that’s in 1800s currency, unadjusted for inflation. The loss of the HMS York, one of the prides of the Royal Navy, however, forced the Board to reconsider. After much deliberation, approval for a lighthouse on Bell Rock was finally given in 1806.

Stevenson was probably estatic that he could now start building his lighthouse. With a solid grounding in civil engineering, Stevenson was sure that he could make a name for himself as the man who built a lighthouse on Bell Rock, one of the most hellish places on earth! But…it was not to be.

The Northern Lighthouse Board roped in Mr. John Rennie to design and build the lighthouse. Born in 1761, Rennie was considered Scotland’s most experienced and knowledgable civil engineer. He had built bridges and canals and dockyards. He had to be the best man for the job! Only, the Lighthouse board overlooked one crucial detail – Rennie had never built a lighthouse in his life! And now, he was going to have to build one on a handkerchief of land right in the middle of nature’s food-processor!

Luckily for the people building the Bell Rock Lighthouse, Rennie did not oversee construction, and neither were his plans for the lighthouse closely followed. In a stroke of good fortune, Robert Stevenson was selected to fill in the post of Resident Engineer (the position of Chief Engineer already taken by Rennie).

Designing the Light

Stevenson was meticulous in his construction of the Bell Rock Lighthouse. He didn’t need to be a sailor to know how dangerous the weather and the waters were, off the coast of Angus, Scotland. All he had to do was read the memorials and the countless newspaper-reports of the hundreds of ships and the thousands of lives that had been wrecked and lost on the rocks over the last century.

In designing the lighthouse, Stevenson examined the structure of other successful lighthouses, particularly the Eddystone Lighthouse, situated on the treacherous Eddystone Rocks, off the coast of Cornwall, England. He determined that the base of the lighthouse would have to be curved and sloped, so as to effectively deflect the force of any waves which would be slamming into the lighthouse every single day of the year. The lighthouse would also have to be extremely tall (over a hundred feet high!) to protect the all-important lamp at the top of the house, from being smashed to pieces by the force of the waves.

The third Eddystone Lighthouse (also called Smeaton’s Tower, named after John Smeaton, the civil engineer who designed it). It was this successful lighthouse (which, by the time it was dismantled and replaced in the 1870s, had stood for over a hundred years!) that Stevenson based his design on

Stevenson saw the designing and construction of the Bell Rock lighthouse as his project. It was, after all, he who had tried for so long to get permission to build a lighthouse there in the first place! To Stevenson, Rennie was nothing more than a helicopter schoolmaster, hovering over him all the time, checking on his work and generally being a nuisance. Although the two men corresponded frequently, with increasingly longer and more detailed letters as the lighthouse was constructed, Stevenson rarely took any of Rennie’s advice, preferring his own decisions and design-features instead.

Working on Bell Rock

Construction for the Bell Rock Lighthouse began on the 17th of August, 1807. In a series of small row-boats, Stevenson and thirty-five labourers set sail for Bell Rock from the district of Angus on the east coast of Scotland. The challenge ahead of them was great. Very great. To begin with, the window for working-time on Bell Rock was absolutely miniscule, and to follow up, the tide could change and swamp their work-site at a moment’s notice under sixteen feet (over four meters) of water in just minutes. Bell Rock was accessible by boat for only a few months each year in the summertime, and even then, only for four hours every day, at low tide! To maximise every single minute that nature allowed him and his men to work, Stevenson insisted that everyone was to work every single day of the week, including on the Sabbath Day (which is every Sunday in the modern calender), something that his highly religious work-crew was unwilling to do. After all, as the Ten Commandmants say: “Observe the Sabbath and Keep it Holy”. To Stevenson, however, religion had no place in a world of civil engineering.

Working on Bell Rock wasn’t just difficult because it was so darn inaccessible. Bell Rock itself was a right royal pain in the ass. Being part of a reef made up of extremely hard sandstone, and working only with hand-tools, Stevenson’s men found it almost impossible to chisel and pickaxe out a decent foundation on the Rock without beating their pickaxes to pieces! It was necessary to employ a blacksmith whose job it would be to set up shop on the Rock, working in freezing water, and to sharpen and resharpen all the pickaxe heads which were quickly blunted by the constant hammering into rock-solid sandstone. Using gunpowder (dynamite would not be invented for another seventy-odd years) to blast holes in the rock was impractical given the wet conditions of the building-site, and which could be extremely dangerous as well.

It was treacherous working on Bell Rock. To save time in going to and from the shore every single day to the Rock, Stevenson procured a ship and anchored it one mile away from the rock, out in the ocean. Each day, workers boarded the ship’s boats and rowed to Bell Rock. There, they would commence their two-hour shift of work. Ending work after two hours and heading for the boats was crucial. The rapidly rising tide could sweep the boats away and leave the men to drown. On one occasion, the second of September, 1807 this actually happened and it was only by very good fortune that Stevenson himself managed to escape with his life.

Work on the Bell Rock Lighthouse was, probably rather predictably, going along at a snail’s pace. The digging of the foundations took an extremely long time, being done entirely by hand…and the foundations that they were digging weren’t even for the lighthouse itself! Before construction of the lighthouse itself could begin, it was necessary to build the Beacon House. The Beacon House was a wooden tower which would serve as a temporary barracks for the men so that they would not have to constantly go back and forth from the ship all the time. It was three floors high, and stood on a framework of stilts, high above the waterline. It was finally completed in the middle of 1808.

Despite all of Stevenson’s coaxings, beggings and rationalisations, he could not convince his men that it would be a good idea to work on the Sabbath Day. They simply refused to do so. The incident of nearly drowning when their boats were washed off the Rock by the rising tide, was all the evidence that they needed, that God wanted them to down tools and chill out on a Saturday, like anyone else would want to do. This all changed in 1808.

A sketch showing the Bell Rock Lighthouse (right) and the temporary Beacon House (left), which housed the construction-workers during the summer months spent on Bell Rock

After leaving the half-completed Beacon House to the mercy of the North Sea, the men rowed and sailed away. Imagine their shock when they returned the following summer to discover that the Beacon House was still standing! Confidence in Stevenson’s engineering skills now firmly established, the men agreed to work seven days a week to complete the lighthouse on Bell Rock.

Building the Bell Rock Lighthouse

Bell Rock Lighthouse, Stevenson knew, would be unlike any other lighthouse then in existence. It would have to put up with fierce winter storms for most of the year, strong tides and waves for the rest of the year, and it would have to weather anything and everything that the North Sea could throw at it without collapsing. To ensure that his tower would stand the test of time, Stevenson constructed it out of highly durable Aberdeen Granite. Quarried from Rubislaw Quarry near the Scottish city of Aberdeen, this granite is famed the world-over for its incredible strength and this was the material that Stevenson was determined to build his tower with. The first stone for the construction of the actual lighthouse was laid on the 9th of July, 1808.

Over the next two years, construction continued at a very slow pace. By the end of 1808, only three courses (levels of stone) had been laid, bringing the lighthouse to a grand height of…six feet! As the tower grew higher, though, the risks of construction began to show. One man, Charles Henderson, was killed when he fell out of the Beacon House during a storm. Another man named Wishart was crippled for life when the arm of one of the cranes fell from the top of the tower, smashing his legs, leaving him unable to work or walk properly for the rest of his life. All the details of daily construction were recorded by Stevenson in his diaries, letters and journals and he wrote ‘Account of the Bell Rock Light-house’ in 1824, chronicling his experiences working on the crowning achievement of his profession.

In 1809, John Rennie (remember him? The guy who was the Chief Engineer and pinched Stevenson’s dream job?) made the second of only two trips to Bell Rock to examine construction; the first trip he made was in 1808 to witness the laying of the lighthouse’s foundation-stone. By now, both Rennie and Stevenson were quite sick of each other. Stevenson saw Rennie as nothing but an interfering buzzard, and, to prevent him from coming to the Rock again, Stevenson kept Rennie swamped by dozens and dozens of letters, asking for his ‘advice’ on how to build the tower. The letters were long and incredibly detailed. They asked everything from what kinds of locks to use on the doors, what type of putty to use for the window-glass, what size and shape the windows should be and so-on. In all, Stevenson sent Rennie eighty-two letters! And Rennie replied to almost every one. But Stevenson just ignored them.

By 1810, the tower was completed. It had cost two men their lives and one man the ability to walk unaided (among other injuries which the men suffered), but the tower was complete! A total of twenty-four powerful oil-lamps were installed in the light at the top of the tower. These lamps were based on a design by French scientist Aime Argand (1750-1803). Unlike conventional, round, spherical oil-lamps, Argand’s lamps were cylindrical in shape.

A typical, tabletop Argand lamp. The lamps used for the Bell Rock Lighthouse were modelled after these

While most lamps just had glass windows to protect the flame, or bulbous, spherical chimneys, again to protect the flame, that was all that these chimneys and windows did. Argand’s lamp, with its cylindrical chimney, had the effect of giving more illumination-power than a regular lamp, as well as protecting the flame from gusts of wind. This was achieved because the tubular shape of the lamp magnified the light output from the burning oil-flame, concentrating it and making it appear brighter. Twenty four, extra-large Argand lamps were installed in the Bell Rock Lighthouse, and both clear and red-tinted glass sheets were placed around the outside of the tower’s light in which these lamps were housed. The result was that at night, when the lamps were lit and the light was set in motion, ships at sea would see an alternating red-and-white flash of light, warning them of the presence of the Bell Rock Lighthouse and the dangerous coastline that it protected.

The Completion of the Lighthouse

The lighthouse was finally completed in 1810, with a total of 2,500 specially-cut blocks of Aberdeen granite going into its construction, each one of these stones delivered to the docks by the same horse from 1808-1810. Its name was Bassey. In the closing months of the lighthouse’s construction, the tower became something of a tourist attraction. Locals and travellers would hire boats and row the twelve miles out to sea, to witness its construction.

A computer-generated image of the Bell Rock Lighthouse as it would have looked immediately after the completion of its construction in 1811

On the 1st of February, 1811, the lighthouse was lit and operated for the first time. In an agreement with Stevenson, made during the lighthouse’s construction, the workman Wishart, who had been crippled by the falling crane, was appointed the lighthouse’s first keeper. Having worked so hard on the lighthouse and having been rendered unfit for most other jobs, Wishart was ideally suited to becoming the first keeper of the Bell Rock Lighthouse.

An artist’s rendition of the Bell Rock Lighthouse in the middle of a fierce, North Sea storm

The Bell Rock Lighthouse stands to this day, a testament to man’s engineering skill. Untouched for over two hundred years (apart from periodic maintenance of the tower’s light), the Bell Rock Lighthouse continues to warn local shipping of the threat posed by the Inchcape, or the reef at Bell Rock.

Bell Rock Lighthouse as it appears today

While there were still disputes for decades after, between Rennie and Stevenson over who should take credit for the lighthouse’s phenomenal design, there can be no doubt that it was Robert Stevenson who built her from the ground up, risking every day of his life on Bell Rock to see his dream come true. Risking death by falling masonry, death by drowning, death by the stormy conditions to be found in that part of the world.

Bell Rock Lighthouse today at low tide. Note the small area of land which the labourers would have had to have worked on. Also, compare this photograph with the one above, showing the extreme difference in water-depth between high and low tide. Failure to get into the boats at the end of each two-hour shift would have resulted in all men drowning within a matter of minutes, as the water washed over their heads.

Robert Stevenson did make a name for himself with Bell Rock. His civil engineering skills were recognised and he went on to design and construct fourteen more lighthouses, along with five bridges! His sons, Thomas, Alan and David Stevenson all went on to become successful civil engineers in their own right. Although Robert Stevenson was famous for building one of the strongest and most robust lighthouses in the world in one of the most hellish places on earth, today, most people would probably remember him for another reason. In November, 1850, the year that Robert Stevenson died, at the very respectable age of seventy-eight, Margaret Isabella Balfour (later, Stevenson) and Thomas Stevenson, Robert’s son, welcomed a new baby boy into the world. A boy who would eventually grow up to be even more famous than his civil-engineer grandfather who brought safety to the East Scottish coast, more famous than his father or either of his uncles. A boy who is still very well-known to this day, over a hundred years after he died.

That boy was Robert…Louis…Stevenson. The famous children’s author, who gave us such famous novels as ‘Treasure Island’, ‘Kidnapped’ and ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’.


The Home of Monarchy – The History of Buckingham Palace

For nearly two hundred years, from the late 1830s until today, from Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II, Buckingham Palace, in the heart of London, has been the seat of the British monarchy. The building is a symbol of power, tradition, a source of nationral pride and a place of national gathering during times of joy and grief. How many of us remember the photographs and newsreel-pictures of people crowding outside the gates of Buckingham Palace in May of 1945 to celebrate VE Day? How many of us remember the dozens of bunches of flowers which were laid against the gates, stacked up against the walls or tied to the railings by Britons mourning the death of Princess Diana in 1997?

But how much do we really know about Buckingham Palace? How old is it? How big is it? How many toilets does it have? How did it get its name and when was it built?

This article will look into the history of one of the world’s most famous royal palaces, from its humble beginnings as a lavish townhouse, to its grand finale as the home to the current queen.

Buckingham House

Does this building look vaguely familiar? It might. Behold Buckingham House, 1809.

The building which is today Buckingham Palace was originally a townhouse named Buckingham House, named after the Duke of Buckingham and Normanby and was constructed starting in 1703. The building was designed by Capt. William Winde, a notable architect of the day who was famous for designing several grand manor-houses. Unfortunately for Winde, few of his original structures survive today, either renovated, intergrated into other buildings or destroyed by fire over the two hundred plus years since his death.

Buckingham House did not last long in private hands, though. After being built for the Duke of Buckingham, it was then passed to his descendant Sir Charles Sheffield in the 1760s and thereafter into royal hands, starting with King George III.

Throughout the next sixty years, Buckingham House was gradually renovated, improved and enlarged. King George IV and his younger brother, the later King William IV, had Buckingham House extensively renovated and improved. In 1834, the British Houses of Parliament, the Palace of Westminster, burnt to the ground in a spectacular fire…

…The destruction of Westminster prompted William IV to turn Buckingham Palace into the new Houses of Parliament, but Parliament turned down the king’s offer, which allowed for the palace’s further renovations until the king’s death in 1837.

Buckingham Palace

It had been the wish of King William IV, who had been a popular and well-liked public figure, to turn Buckingham Palace from a mere noble townhouse into a palace and residence fit for royalty. Although renovations and building had been ongoing since the time of George IV, William, George’s younger brother, died before these renovations were completed.

On the 20th of June, 1837, Victoria became Queen of the United Kingdom, and became the first monarch to move into the new palace and so Buckingham Palace entered on its role which we know it for today – being the London home of the British monarch.

If you expected a palace fit for a queen to be glamorous and wonderful…think again. Victoria (then aged only 18) moved into her new house so fast that the renovations were barely completed! The palace hadn’t been cleaned properly, there were heating problems due to malfunctions with chimneys (which meant that fires couldn’t be lit in the fireplaces) and probably most dangerous of all, the newfangled ‘gas’ lighting wasn’t working properly, which could turn Buckingham Palace into the world’s most luxurious time-bomb!

Another problem with the new palace was space. If you’ve read my article on classical makeup of domestic servants, you’ll know that grand houses built during this era took a small army to keep them primped and proper and neat and tidy and running smoothly. Any grand house would have up to a dozen or more servants. In a royal palace, this number skyrocketed to a few hundred! Footmen, butlers, waiters, chefs, cleaners, laundresses, courtiers, valets, ladies’ maids, chambermaids…and then you had to consider the space needed for courtiers, guests, family…and all of their servants! There simply wasn’t enough room!

Originally constructed with a central building and two wings, it was decided that Buckingham Palace would require an extension. London’s famous Marble Arch, built to commemorate great naval victories, was originally the ceremonial entranceway to the palace. But it was only ceremonial, and little else. It was decided that Marble Arch took up too much space, and so it was moved to the corner of Hyde Park where it is today. In its place, a third wing was constructed, joining up the two other wings and enclosing a central courtyard that is the quadrangle that we know today. It is this last addition to the palace that makes it begin to resemble what we recognise today.

Buckingham Palace as it appeared in 1910, at the end of the Edwardian era

The enclosing of the quadrangle was completed in 1847 and this was one of the last major construction-efforts taken out on the palace until the early 20th century.

A New Palace for a New Century

With a new century came a new king. Edward VII, famous for being fat and friendly and for forgetting to button up his waistcoats, was well-known for being something of a party-animal. He loved entertaining. Dinners, balls, hunting-parties and dances were always on Eddie’s calender and the palace was modernised and renovated to suit the king’s needs and taste.

London is famous for a great many things. One of these is the notorious London fog. Fog or smog in London was not just low-hanging clouds. It was everything. Ash. Dust. Soot. Moisture. Smoke. Grit from the streets. Oil and grease from factories. On especially bad days, London’s smog was so bad, you literally couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. This unsightly and nasty fog caused terrible cosmetic damage to the palace. In the end, the damage of the smog to the palace’s stonework was so extensive that the stonework had to be entirely replaced…a process that took well over a year in 1913.

A Wartime Palace

As a symbol of Britannic pride, of monarchy, of patriotism, Buckingham Palace has long been a target in times of war. In the 1910s with the outbreak of WWI, George V was encouraged to lock the palace’s wine-cellars so as not to set a bad example to his subjects by enjoying himself and guzzling down wine while the country was in dire straits.

Warfare took a bigger toll on the palace in WWII, though. The Blitz on London, from 1940-1941 caused massive amounts of damage throughout the British capital and the palace was not spared. Hitler knew that he could seriously hurt British morale by destroying the palace and the Luftwaffe made it a specific target. It was bombed no less than seven times in the Second World War. One bomb detonated in the palace quadrangle, blowing out all the interior windows in the process! This particular attack made the front page of local newspapers and served as a morale-booster to the British public, glad that their monarchy had not deserted them in this time of national crisis.

The Palace Today

The palace in the 21st Century is still very much a working royal institution, just as it was when it was first inhabited by Queen Victoria over a hundred years ago. Events such as grand dinners, meetings and press-conferences still continue within its chambers and garden parties for everyone from adults to grandparents to children, now take place in the palace gardens on a regular basis.


Top Floor: The History of the Modern Skyscraper

These days, the challenge to build the biggest, highest, tallest, strongest buildings is everywhere. Everyone wants to build the tallest building in the city, county, state, province, country…and of course…the tallest building in the world! In our modern megacities, where we’re surrounded by towering masses of glass, steel, concrete and wood, it’s very easy to forget that the building which makes our modern lives possible…the skyscraper…is only just over a hundred years old! In the scope of construction-technology, the skyscraper is but a child, something that we probably don’t think about very much, but it’s true.

Before the Skyscraper

It’s hard to imagine our cities without skyscrapers, isn’t it? The tallest fully-inhabitable structures were usually no more than five or six storeys tall. There was no elevator, there were no big, glossy windows and there were no handsome, artistically-carved facades of stonework to drool over. Without the invention of the elevator, the only way to move between floors was through dozens of staircases. People were unwilling to go up more than a few flights of stairs and so stairs normally stopped after only a few floors. Water-pumps were unable to build up enough water-pressure to force running water up pipes and into bathrooms and other rooms where water was necessary, beyond a certain height, and this too limited how high a practical building could be.

But the biggest thing restricting the construction of tall buildings was the lack of steel.

Although steel had existed for centuries, at the time it was difficult to mass produce. The shortage of this strong wonder-metal meant that it was too expensive to use steel to build frameworks and scaffolding for buildings. Without a strong frame to hold the building up and take the strain, the weight of the buildings was transferred to the walls. To combat the crushing weight of tons of masonary, glass and metal, early buildings which were to be built to what were then considered significant heights, had to have walls that were incredibly thick. In some extreme cases, as much as six feet of solid stone and brick!

The Development of the Modern Skyscraper

Cheap Steel

The skyscraper as we know it today was the result of several inventions and developments. Probably the first of these was the creation of a method for the mass-production of steel, which, prior to the mid 19th century, was an expensive metal and difficult and expensive to manufacture in large quantities.

Using a large, barrel-shaped device called a Bessemer Converter, English inventor Henry Bessemer was able to create a process for manufacturing steel cheaply and quickly. Molten pig-iron was poured into the open top of the Bessemer Converter and a fire which was made to burn hotter thanks to air injected into it by pipes at the bottom of the converter, allowed the pig iron to be superheated, burning or vapourising any impurities in the metal. Once the impurities had been burnt off, the huge Bessemer Converter (which, when full, could take thirty tons of pig iron!) was tipped over on the axle which attached it to a massive, secure frame built around it. When the converter was tipped over, pure steel poured out and ran into any moulds that were waiting for it. Once the metal had cooled, strong, preformed and perfect steel beams were ready for use!

A Bessemer Converter. Converters such as these lasted from the 1870s until the process was finally declared obsolete in the 1960s

The Bessemer Process was crucial for the development of the skyscraper. Without a way to quickly and cheaply manufacture steel, the skyscraper would never have existed. The thick, heavy, load-bearing walls of conventional buildings of the day would have to have been yards thick to be able to build buildings of the heights we know today. This all changed with steel.

With steel, buildings could now be built with frames first, each I-beam or girder held together by several red-hot rivets. These steel frames could be built quickly and they could be built high and they could be built strong! With the floors and the framework taking the weight of the building, the walls no longer had to be so thick. Now, walls could have more windows in them, they could have more decorative brick-and-stonework and…in the modern world…they could be made entirely of glass!

The Elevator

The modern skyscraper could not have existed without Bessemer steel. But even with Bessemer steel, it still would not have existed. In the 19th century, buildings were restricted in height due to the inconvenience of stairs! People were unwilling to go up endless flights of stairs. It was tiring, it was slow and stairwells and staircases took up an annoyiingly large amount of space inside a building. This changed when the electric safety-elevator was invented.

Elevators have been around for centuries. The Colosseum in Rome had lots of them! But these elevators were simple wood-and-rope affairs, driven by manpower or counterweights. Effective for rising up a few feet, but useless for rising up the dozens of storeys of the modern skyscraper. The electrically-powered safety-elevator allowed buildings and people to climb higher more efficiently, but these didn’t show up until the late 19th century.

An American named Elisha Otis is credited with inventing an elevator which people would feel safe on. Otis’s ‘safety elevator’ was so-called because in the event of the elevator-cable snapping, a pair of jaws and rollers at the top of the elevator-car would spring outwards and catch on the sides of the elevator shaft, thus preventing an accident. Of course, if the elevator was descending, this migh cause the safety-mechanism to trip accidently, so the elevator-brakes were speed-operated – they would only spring into action if there was a sudden drop of the elevator-car, consistent with a broken cable.

The first modern electrically-powered elevator came in the 1880s and, combined with Otis’s 1850s safety-elevator technology, the modern “lift” as we know it today, was born.

Lack of Land

People only build big and tall for two reasons: One, they can. Two, they have to. These days, skyscrapers are built because they can be built, but back in the turn of the last century, skycrapers were built because they had to be built. Cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Melbourne, London and Paris were becoming increasingly crowded due to factors ranging from the Industrial Revolution to immigration to gold-rushes. Cities were swelling up and unable to look down, city planners and architects started looking for ways to build higher. With cheap steel, elevators and a massive immigrant workforce, cities which made the skyscraper famous, such as New York, were born.

Where do we get the term ‘Skyscraper’ from?

Why ‘skyscraper’? Why not cloud-climber or sunkisser or moonhugger or man-mountain? Where did we get the term ‘skyscraper’ from?

The term ‘Skyscraper’ as we know it today, meaning a tall, thin building which is continuously inhabitable from the ground up, comes from the very lips of the men who built these massive structures. Many of the men who built skyscrapers around the turn of the century were sailors, men who spent weeks at sea climbing up and down the rigging of sailing-ships and who were therefore immune to the stomach-churning heights of hundreds of feet up in the air that skyscraper-builders had to face every day.

The sailors who made up the backbone of the skyscraper workforce named these new and fantastic buildings which they were constructing ‘skyscrapers’, which was the nickname for the very highest sail on a conventional, three-masted sailing-ship (the actual term is ‘Topgallant’). The name was amazingly appropriate, and it has stuck for the last a hundred and twenty odd years.

The main topgallant (‘E’ in the picture above) was colloquially called the ‘skyscraper’ by sailors, who made up the main workforce which constructed many famous early skyscrapers, and the name just stuck

Building a Tower Up to the Sun

By the first quarter of the 20th century, the skyscraper had changed the global cityscape forever. Skyscrapers were big business and they were shooting up all over the world. How big a business? Fat cats were so into building these massive structures that they did almost anything to entice construction-workers to work on their latest projects. The average construction-worker could earn twice what he usually did by agreeing to help build a skyscraper!

Although the pay for construction workers and general unskilled labourers who wanted to work on skyscrapers was double the usual rate, the work was easily a hundred times more dangerous. Construction-workers – riveters, crane-operators and general labourers, risked death every single day working at heights of a hundred, five hundred, a thousand feet and even higher up in the air!

But people do that today all the time so it’s no problem. Right?


From the 1890s-1940s, construction-safety as we know it today did not exist at all. At 900ft up in the air, a riveter or a general construction-worker was entirely on his own. He had no ropes. No cables. No harnesses. No winches. And certainly no hard-hat. Safety-nets? Forget it! One wrong step or one gust of wind while walking on a steel girder less than half a foot wide…and it was a freefall drop to certain death nearly a mile below. Working on a skyscraper was called “treading the steel” or “walking the steel”…because you literally had to walk around on those skinny steel beams to move around the building with absolutely no safety-gear. Experienced workers were called ‘roughnecks’ while new and inexperienced workers were nicknamed ‘snakes’. ‘Snakes’ because working with them was extremely dangerous. One wrong step, one distraction or one miscalculation…and the snake (and possibly other workers) were dead.

A famous photograph by Lewis Hine. It shows construction-workers on their lunch-break in the early 1930s. Note the lack of any safety-equipment. This photo isn’t staged and it hasn’t been retouched. The building they’re constructing is the Crysler Building, the building of which, Hines was commissioned to document with his camera

Even in the days before welding, skyscrapers were built phenomenally fast. The Empire State Building, the tallest building in New York City could rise up two or three floors a day (with a total of 102 floors!), which was amazingly fast when you consider that all the positioning, bolting, screwing and riveting was done entirely by hand! Due to the restricted size of the Manhattan streetgrid, girders which arrived at the Empire State Building would leave their delivery trucks still hot from the forge and would be winched up right away. There was nowhere on the ground to let the hot steel cool off before it was used, so instead the construction workers just hauled it up the moment it arrived and let the wind blow on it to cool it down as it rose.

The Skyscraper Today

These days, the skyscraper is a symbol of the modern world, the modern city, it’s a staple of our lives. To have a 21st century without the skyscraper is to have one without telephones, automobiles, the computer or the iPhone. And yet, while we may sometimes think of the skyscraper as a modern invention, one should also remember that it both is, and isn’t. Is it modern? Certainly. A hundred years is an eye-blink in the pages of history, but is it also old? Yes. To think that this icon of the modern city had its roots in the crowded, noisy, congested and choked streets of the late 19th century and that it has survived for so long.


Bridging the Thames: The History of the Tower Bridge

The United Kingdom has a lot of famous things. Queen Lizzie, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Top Gear, Mock the Week…famous authors, terrible weather, national cuisine of a questionable quality, colourful slang and one of the most powerful naval forces in the world.

And then there’s this thing:

Tower Bridge, which crosses the River Thames in London, the British capital, is one of the most famous structures in the world. It’s recognised and admired all over the globe as a national, aesthetic and engineering masterpiece of the Victorian age. Despite what we might think, Tower Bridge is nowhere near as old as some of us would like to think. In fact, Tower Bridge opened on the 30th of June, 1894. Little more than a hundred years ago. Today, we could hardly imagine London without it.

Before the Bridge

London has been around for centuries, ever since a town called “Londinium” was founded by the Romans in 47AD. For a considerable time, there were very few crossings of the River Thames and for centuries, London Bridge (originally built by the Romans) was the only bridge crossing the Thames within the boundaries of London.

Fast forward a few centuries, and you’ll find more and more bridges added to London to cross the river it’s built around. By the time the Tower Bridge was dreamt up in the 1890s, the River Thames had…

Regent Bridge (Vauxhall Bridge) (1816)
Westminster Bridge (1862)
Waterloo Bridge (1817)
London Bridge (1831)

Increasing commercial and industrial development in the East End of London during the second half of the 19th century (brought on by the Industrial Revolution) meant that another bridge needed to be built across the Thames to ease the congestion on London Bridge and the nearby Tower Subway tunnel (which, despite the name, was really a pedestrian tunnel and wasn’t actually used by trains).

By the 1870s, congestion on London Bridge was chronic and a committee was set up in 1876 to decide on a new crossing-point on the River Thames, down-river from London Bridge. A competition was held, inviting engineers and designers to send in their ideas for a new bridge to cross the Thames. One of the big challenges in designing the new bridge, however, was the fact that in building this bridge, it would be blocking river-access to the Port of London. Any bridge built down-river from London Bridge would have to be high enough to allow ships and boats to pass safely beneath it, not an easy thing to accomplish when the Thames is a tidal river with tides that rise and fall several feet at a time.

London Bridge, Ca. 1910. Although this painting was completed sixteen years after Tower Bridge was opened, it shows quite clearly how congested London Bridge had become, and the absolute necessity for a new river-crossing

Over fifty designs were sent to the bridge committee for consideration, but a potential winner was not decided upon until, in October of 1884, two men, Horace Jones and John W. Barry, came up with their idea for a bascule-suspension bridge. The Committee were quick to see the advantages of Jones and Barry’s design and approved it for construction.

The suspension-bridge is able to span great distances, such as the River Thames, easily. The double-bascule segment of the bridge in the middle meant that ships could easily pass through the structure to head upriver. The ‘bascules’ were the two leaves of the central drawbridge, which could be raised (to let ships pass through the bridge) and lowered (to allow vehicular and foot-traffic to cross the river) by mechanical means.

Building the Bridge

Construction of Tower Bridge started in 1886. For the number-crunchers reading this, here’s a few statistics:

Number of Contractors: 5.
Number of Construction-Workers: 432.
Construction-time: 8 Years.
Amount of Concrete to make bridge piers: 70,000 tons.
Amount of Steel for the bridge’s framework: 11,000 tons.
Cost of Construction: 1,184,000 pounds sterling (approximately 100,000,000 pounds sterling today).

Tower Bridge under construction

As the bridge was constructed, tons of granite and Portland Stone was brought in to build the bridge’s distinctive towers. At the top of the bridge, linking the two towers, is a pair of walkways. These were included in the bridge’s design so that pedestrians could continue to cross the bridge even when the drawbridges were opened and crossing the bridge via its main span was impossible. The walkways were closed soon after, though, when they became a favourite haunt of prostitutes and thieves.

The bridge was completed in 1894 and was originally painted chocolate brown. It’s current red, white and blue colour-scheme was added in 1977 in commemoration of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee (which marks the 25th year of the Queen’s reign).

Opening the Bridge

The bridge was formally opened on the 30th of June, 1894, by His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales (King Edward VII later in life).

A painting capturing the atmosphere of the formal opening of Tower Bridge in 1894. Note all the ships dressed with their signal-flags for the occasion

Tower Bridge became popular in a hurry. Not just because it looked really neat, but also because it was toll-free (a surefire hit with any bridge-crosser). The nearby Tower Subway tunnel charged a toll for its use while the bridge did not. Because of this, intelligent Victorians soon abandoned the Tower Subway tunnel and started crossing the bridge regularly instead. The bridge was so popular that by 1898, the Tower Subway tunnel closed due to a lack of revenue!

If you’re wondering why the two structures are called ‘Tower Subway’ and ‘Tower Bridge’, it might do well to examine a map of London. The tunnel and the bridge which put the tunnel out of business were named ‘Tower’ due to their close proximity to the Tower of London, the ancient fortress and prison on the north bank of the River Thames.

Raising and Lowering the Bridge

One of the most famous things about Tower Bridge is not its shape or its size or the fact that it was named after some spooky old castle next door…it’s the fact that it moves! The raising and lowering the drawbridges that make up Tower Bridge’s central span, is the most recognisable feature of this marvel of engineering. So how is it done?

From its opening in 1894 until 1975!…Tower Bridge was opened using steam-powered hydraulic engines. There were two engines, one to raise each side of the bridge. At the press of a button, the two halves of the bridge could be raised up to their full angle of 86 degrees each. This whole process took about one minute. Speed was important on the River Thames, when ships needed quick access to the London Docks further up-river.

During the Second World War, a third steam-engine was made. Its purpose was to act as a standby in case Tower Bridge was hit by a German bomb during the Blitz and one of the operational engines was put out of commission by the damage. Fortunately, this never happened and the third engine (along with the other two original steam engines) is now a museum-piece.

In 1976, the bridge’s original steam-powered engines were removed and replaced with more modern electrical ones. They still raise and lower the bridge using hydraulic power, but don’t require as much maintenance.