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.


The Mid-Autumn Festival

As the Chinese (among other cultures and civilisations) traditionally followed the Lunar Calender, various events on Chinese calenders change to a different date on the more commonly-used Western calender. Chinese months are dictated by the movement of the moon, instead of the sun, as with Western calenders. Before very long, the world (or at least, the Chinese part of it) will be celebrating one of the most famous events on the Chinese calender.

The Moon Festival.

Also called the Mid-Autumn Festival or the “Mooncake” Festival, it was and is, one of the most famous Chinese holidays in the world. But what exactly does this festival celebrate, when does it happen and how is it celebrated?

The Date of the Mid-Autumn Festival

As the event’s title rather obviously suggests, the Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated in the middle of Autumn in the Northern Hemisphere. In 2010, this date will be the 22nd of September. A little less than two weeks from now. It was actually the approach of this festival that inspired this article. This blogger having a Chinese background, it’s only natural that he keep an eye on important Chinese celebrations so as to successfully cash-in on any goodies that might come his way. But…what kind of goodies are there?

The Chinese Mooncake

The Chinese Mooncake, called a ‘Yuebing‘ (‘You-Bing’), literally “Moon Biscuit” or “Moon Cake”, is one of the most famous and undeniably, one of the most delicious Chinese desserts ever to come out of the Far East. Mooncakes are small compared to Western cakes, about the size of a Chinese rice-bowl. Mooncakes feature a thin, pastry crust, usually stamped or imprinted with Chinese characters or a pattern of some kind, and a thick, dense, sweet paste-filling, variously made of peanuts, mung-beans, Lotus-seeds, red beans and in Southeast Asia…even Durian paste! Some varities of mooncake feature salted egg-yolks in their centers, to symbolise the moon.

A traditional Chinese mooncake. The yellow stuff in the center is the salted egg-yolk. There are varieties of mooncake which are sold yolkless, however

The Mooncake is considered a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. Apart from tasting like edible heaven, the mooncake is notoriously labour-intensive to make…probably why they’re only made once a year! Although modern manufacturing-processes have made it easier to make mooncakes, they’re still usually only a once-a-year treat if they’re home-made (akin to the Christmas pudding) due to the time it takes to make them.

The History of the Mooncake

The mooncake is believed to have been created in the 14th century during the Yuan Dynasty. Legend states that during this period, China was invaded by the Mongols. To overthrow them and restore traditional Chinese rule, revolutionaries and resistance-leaders baked special cakes with Chinese characters stamped on their tops. As a conventional cake, the characters made no sense. The cake had to be sliced up and the slices then rearranged like a game of Scrabble before the characters, then arranged in their correct order, would reveal their secret message. Using this method, the revolutionaries delivered cakes throughout China, spreading the word about a planned uprising. The uprising was successful and in 1368, the Yuan Dynasty collapsed, to be followed by the Ming Dynasty. The cakes are still made today to commemorate the return of traditional Chinese rule, as well as to celebrate the Mid-Autumn festival and the full moon. An alternate version of the legend was that messages were written on paper (giving the date and time of the planned rebellion). The messages were scrunched up and hidden in the center of mooncakes so that their secret would only be discovered when the cake was sliced up to be served. Neither of these legends is likely to be true, but they sure make for some interesting stories.

The Celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival

The Mid-Autum, Moon or Mooncake Festival is one of the biggest celebrations in the Chinese calender (along with Chinese New Year). Depending on the cycles of the moon, the Mid-Autumn Festival takes place in either September or October each year and celebrates the end of the harvest-season. Traditionally, families gathered together to eat mooncakes, moon-gaze and for the youngsters at least, to play with fire (literally!). Another nickname for the Mid-Autumn Festival is the ‘Lantern Festival’, this is because it was a tradition for children to be given lanterns after the sun went down and when they went outside to play. As a child, I remember the lanterns that we used to have, with candles inside them. The candles shone against the sides of the lanterns (which were shaped as various animals or objects such as flowers or fish) and reflected the plastic, coloured sides of the lantern, shining all kinds of different colours everywhere.

Children holding lanterns during the Mid-Autumn Festival

Other traditional celebrations of the Mid-Autumn festival include dragon-dances and the burning of incense.


The Four Great Chinese Inventions

The Chinese are famous for all kinds of things. Kicking butt, cooking weird and wonderful food (fried grasshopper, sir?) and the One Child Policy. But for centuries, the Chinese have also been famous as a country of inventors, bringing us such wonderful things as pasta, fortune-cookies and mahjong.

Okay I lied. Only one of those inventions are actually Chinese. Pasta was invented in Italy and fortune-cookies were invented in California, USA. Neither of them is actually Chinese. Mahjong, the famous Chinese tabletop game with a reputation for gambling, was invented by a Chinese empress to play with her servants when they were bored, with the distinctive rectangular blocks first being made out of ivory.

But of all the things that the Chinese gave the world, the four most famous and probably, most important ones, are paper, gunpowder, the compass and woodblock printing. These four things are traditionally called the “Four Great Inventions of Ancient China”. In Chinese, they’re called the ‘Si Da Ming‘ (literally “four big inventions”). Without them, the modern world as we know it today, probably wouldn’t exist. How could we have our printers and scanners without paper? Or how would a German guy named Gutenberg have gotten the idea for the moveable-type printing-press if he hadn’t known that the Chinese could print first? How would all our ships and planes and boy-scouts have found their way around without compasses and most importantly, how could we have produced better weapons without the invention of gunpowder?

China’s a massive country. It really is. See if you can find it on a map, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It seemed fairly obvious that with so many people crammed into one tiny place, the Chinese were bound to invent something sooner or later, to improve their hectic lives. Which of the four inventions came first?


Paper. So simple. So wonderful. So versatile. Used to wrap parcels, cover walls, write on, fold intricate cutesy shapes out of and the answer to the prayers of millions of people on the millions of toilets all over the world. What is paper and how did the Chinese invent it?

As any tree-hugger will tell you, paper is made from wood. The first kind of ‘paper’ was called ‘papyrus’ and it was invented in Ancient Egypt. It was made from the reeds of the papyrus tree, which grew near the River Nile. Of course…papyrus trees don’t just grow anywhere, so people needed a better material than papyrus. Vellum (calfskin leather) was excellent quality for writing, but it would be like writing on silk. Very pretty, but damned expensive. The world needed something better. Something easier to make. Something cheaper. Something like…paper.

Enter a guy named Cai Lun (pronounced ‘Chai Lunn’). Cai Lun was a smart guy. He lived from 50-121AD, allowing the Mortal Coil to springboard him up to the Cloudy Place at the ripe old age of 71. He had to be smart to live that long! And he had to be smart to get his job, too! What was his job? Cai Lun was doing very nicely for himself as a courtier to Emperor He, fourth emperor of the Eastern Han Dynasty. Of course, being a courtier to the Chinese emperor meant that Cai Lun wasn’t a complete man…ahem. Chinese law dictated that the only men living in the Imperial Household were the Emperor and his male family members. Cai Lun was a eunuch.

Although he had no physical ones to speak of, Cai Lun had a lot of stones. This guy invented paper! Prior to Cai Lun’s existence, most documents were written on bamboo. A bamboo shaft was chopped up and the characters of the text were written on it in vertical shafts and these shafts were then sewn together. Completed, a bamboo-text looked like this:

Although it looks pretty darn cool, can you imagine having an entire bookcase of this stuff? The damn thing would collapse! The Chinese wanted something that was easier to make, faster to make and of course…lighter! Lighter than the huge fagots of text that they were carrying around!…And a fagot is a bundle of sticks, if you’re wondering…go ahead, look it up in the dictionary.

Traditional Chinese paper, as invented by Cai Lun in the year AD105, was made up of…junk. Basically. He used plant-fibres, particularly, the fibres of the mullberry tree (favourite diet of the silkworm) and the fibres that come from hemp, along with other junk, like old rags and fishnets. Ground up, mixed up, pounded out and left to dry on a flat surface, Cai Lun was able to make paper out of all this trash. Of course…these days paper isn’t quite made the same way, but Cai Lun showed us all that it was possible. Over the years, he and others like him, refined the papermaking process until we have what we have today.

Note that I type ‘years’. Not months. Not weeks. Years. Chinese paper, though easy in theory, was notoriously difficult to make. Although the Chinese had mastered the art of papermaking, they were exceedingly adverse to anyone trying to pinch their ideas. Other countries such as Korea, Siam and Japan all tried to copy the Chinese, but without the proper instructions, they failed. One possible reason for this was because Chinese paper was incredibly thin. So thin that it was only possible to write on one side of it. This delicacy added to the difficulty experienced in making it.

It took centuries, but eventually, paper spread around the world, appearing in Europe at the close of the 1300s, where it was being produced in places such as Germany, Spain and Italy.

And so Cai Lun had changed the world. Emperor He was suitably impressed by this…paper…stuff, that he rewarded Cai Lun handsomely, with the usual corporate bonuses of the day – Lots of money, a chunk of land…and an aristocratic title! Fancy, huh? Unfortunately, it didn’t last. Emperor An, the sixth emperor of the Eastern Han Dynasty was not happy with all the riches that his uncle, Emperor He, had given Cai Lun, and attempted to arrest him. Cai Lun wasn’t about to be sent to jail, so he had a bath, put on his very best clothes and committed suicide by poison in AD121. Although Cai Lun wasn’t able to live out his natural life, his invention, paper, continues to live on to this day.

Woodblock Printing

Woodblock printing comes along next during the 9th Century (the 800s). It is unclear who invented woodblock printing and likely, no one person was responsible. It was, however, the next logical step. You had paper. Now you needed a printer. And sooner or later…a computer with Windows Vista on it, as well. But for now, mankind needed a printer. Woodblock printing originated in Asia around the mid 800s. It was a tricky and delicate way to print stuff, but it did work. First, you needed a flat slab or board of wood. Then, it was necessary to carve a relief-matrix in the piece of wood. This meant carving out every single little stroke of each Chinese character so that when the block was inked and the paper was pressed, the characters would show up nice and dark and black, and everything else was white. Hard enough to do in English, almost impossible in Chinese! And then don’t forget…you had to do it in reverse, or else the text would come out in mirror-fashion! Unless you were Leonardo from Vinci, they would be completely useless!

Woodblock printing took a lot of skill and time and patience, so whatever it was you wanted to print, you had to be damn sure of, first! Once the matrix had been carved and inked, it was necessary to lay down some of Cai Lun’s beautiful paper, and then press or roll it firmly over the inked matrix. The result looked something like this:

It wouldn’t be another five or six centuries until Gutenberg invented his moveable-type printing-press, but the Chinese had shown us that printing was possible. It was very difficult and expensive, but yes, it could be done.


Probably everybody’s favourite classical Chinese invention is the stuff that goes ‘Boom!’. Also known as ‘gunpowder’.

Like woodblock printing, Chinese gunpowder (known today as ‘blackpowder’) was invented sometime in the 800s. It is generally believed that Chinese alchemists (an old-fashioned term for a scientist or a chemist) accidently created gunpowder while mucking around in their labs one day. It’s unclear exactly how this happened, but what is known is that the alchemists were trying to make the Elixer of Immortality. Without any philosophers stones, magical mirrors or wise, homosexual wizards around to help them, they were doing it largely by trial and error. And then, they discovered it. The Elixer of Immortality. Or at least, it did grant immortality in the sense that when you detonated enough of this stuff, it released your immortal soul to the heavens. So they did get there in the end.

The ingredients to classical Chinese gunpowder were startlingly simple. Hell, you could probably make it in your kitchen right now. Sooner or later it might show up on MasterChef (“And here’s one we prepared earlier!…”). How simple was Chinese gunpowder? It had only four ingredients! Charcoal (which you can get from your fireplace) potassium-nitrate (‘saltpetre’, which can be extracted from human urine), realgar (a form of sulphur) and…honey.

Mixed in the correct ratios and baked at 200 degrees for two hours…okay I kid…you could make gunpowder. Gunpowder was predictably, very unstable and it didn’t take much to set it off. As one text states, after mixing up those ingredients, the unfortunate alchemists could have burnt…

    “…their hands and faces…and even the whole house where they were working…”

So as you can see, pretty powerful stuff. That excerpt was taken from a 9th century Chinese religious text.

Gunpowder changed the world. With it, mankind could produce all kinds of scary weapons. Pistols, muskets, musketoons, blunderbusses, cannons, artillery-pieces, grenades and fireworks (another awesome Chinese invention). Before the invention of dynamite, gunpowder was also used in construction to blast holes in rocks!

The Compass

The compass is a tricky thing to date. Like the needle that we know it for today, its date of invention swivels and wobbles and spins around like a toddler who just discovered a revolving computer-chair. The first mentions of magnetism in Chinese texts date back to before Christ. The first practical compasses which were used for navigation, however, date from the 11th and 12th centuries, between about 1040-1120.

The traditional Chinese compass was the “ladle and bowl” or “spoon and bowl” style of compass. They looked like this:

Like all great inventors, the Chinese made things to be multifunctional. You could use the compass to find your way to the restaurant and then eat dinner with it at the same time.

Chinese studies with magnetism and its affect on metals (well, iron, really) date back to the 4th century BCE, but the compasses that we know today were born in the 1100s. The Chinese were quick to see the benefits of the compass. With a constant North-Bearing, navigation was now possible. Chinese navigational compasses had the ‘bowl’ part of the compass filled with water, with the lodestone, compass-needle or ‘spoon’ floating on top. With the lubrication of the water, the lodestone could move around freely, giving navigators a clear sense of their direction. It’s partially thanks to the compass that in ancient times, the Chinese had one of the biggest navys in the world! With such a big navy, it was necessary for the Chinese to know where they were going. So a form of the now-famous compass-rose was created. Unlike the modern one (which has 32 points), the Chinese rose had 48 different reference-points! Imperial eunuch and famous Chinese sailor, Zheng He, made frequent mention of compass-bearings during his oceanic travels.

And so there you have it. The four great inventions of Ancient China. And probably the biggest irony is…the title of the Four Great Inventions was a term coined by the ENGLISH…not the Chinese…who found out about it, and decided to pinch it for their own publicity purposes.


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 Underland Route’ or the History of the Subway

In the 1860s in the years during and after the American Civil War, two railroad companies completed America’s first transcontinental railroad, colloquially called the “Overland Route”. This cut down the travel-time from cities such as Chicago in the East, to Los Angeles and San Francisco in the West, from several weeks or even months by wagon-train…to a few days by steam-powered locomotive. Instead of stocking up on rifles and muskets, provisions and supplies…a person could pack his steamer-trunk or suitcase, buy a ticket and ride the rails in what was then a fast, comfortable and convenient way to travel.

Around the same time that the Americans completed their “overland route”, a hop across the pond called the Atlantic Ocean to England would see the British people’s first…”underland route”…and the birth of the modern subway system.

The London Underground: The World’s First Subway

The London Underground (more commonly called ‘The Underground’ or ‘The Tube’ today), is the world’s oldest and is one of the world’s largest subway systems. It’s famous all over the world for its stations, its red, white and blue logo or ’roundel’ and the similiarly-coloured, tubular railway carriages. It’s famous for being used as air-raid shelters during the Second World War and for appearing in a James Bond movie where an invisible Aston Martin is delivered to Bond on a flatbed railway carriage.

Beneath all this fame and glory and fortune, people tend to forget that the London Underground is the world’s first and oldest underground railroad and is now nearly a hundred and fifty years old and still running. The story of the London Underground is the story of the development of the modern subway system and the story of one is generally entwined with the other.

The Need to go Under

Subway systems are not built for their novelty aspect or because “they can”. In each particular city where a subway exists, there are reasons for their construction. But what was it that led to the whole idea of the “under ground” railroad to begin with?

To understand this, we must flashback to London in the 1850s and 60s. Here, we meet a city which is the center of an empire, which is increasing in population every day due to the vast changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution and which is suffering the consequences of such rapid population-growth…traffic congestion.

By the 1850s, railroads were fast becoming the most popular way to move around. It was quick, comfortable and convenient. While cities had several large railroad stations for big, main train-lines, the problem was that once passengers arrived in town, they clogged up the roads with horse-drawn carriages and taxi-cabs. It was reasoned that if there were trains right in the heart of town, they would be able to move people around more effectively and cut down on congestion. This wasn’t easy in a city as old as London, though. Railroad lines took up a lot of space and with congestion as bad as it was, threading railroad lines all over the road was hardly the best solution. Instead, it was decided that the best method of getting trains into the city was to go underground. It would be relatively easy to follow the roads, stops and stations could be easily planned and it would provide valuable employment to the thousands of unemployed people living in London in the second half of the 19th Century.

The First Subway

The first part of the first subway, the London Underground, was born in 1863 as the Metropolitan Railway and stretched from Paddington Station north to Farringdon Station, via King’s Cross. The man responsible for this new, quite literally groundbreaking task of an ‘under ground’ railroad was Charles Pearson, a London lawyer and Member of Parliament. Throughout the 1830s, 40s and 50s, Pearson had campaigned for an ‘underground railroad’ to help ease the increasing traffic congestion in central London during the mid-19th century. After numerous government meetings, debates and discussions, an act of Parliament was passed for the construction of the first stage of what would become the world’s first subway system.

The Metropolitan Railway under construction near King’s Cross Station; February, 1861

To make things easy, the Metropolitan Railway was constructed using the ‘cut-and-cover’ method of tunnel-construction. This involves digging a huge trench in the middle of the street, right down to the level where the railroad lines would go. The rail-lines would be laid and the tunnel walls and roof would be built above it. Once the roof was completed, the excavated rubble and soil was dumped back over the top to reform the original roadway, giving the process its name of ‘cut and cover’. While relatively easy, safe and quick to carry out, Pearson probably won himself a great deal of enemies by building his railroad this way – the Cut and Cover method meant that entire roads and city blocks had to be shut down for construction-purposes. Building the railroad took nearly three years, from February, 1860 – January, 1863. Unfortunately, Pearson wouldn’t live to see his masterpiece open for operation; he would die on the 14th of September, 1862, of dropsy. He was 68 years old.

Underground Trains

Having built the subway, it was now necessary to get trains into it. Obviously, conventional steam-trains were out of the question. They were huge, bulky, noisy digusting things, far too unsuitable for subway tunnels. Instead, an entirely new form of railroad locomotive had to be invented. While still coal-fired, steam-powered engines, these new machines were significantly smaller than their above-ground counterparts.

Metropolitan Railway A-Class subway locomotive. Engine #23 was made in 1864

The steam-engines developed for the London Underground were compact, fat, low-profiled tank-engines. Despite the obvious problems of smoke and steam from these newly designed machines, the London Underground proved popular with Victorians. Nearly 27,000 passengers were using the Metropolitan Railway within the first few months of its opening in January of 1863.

Electrification of Subways

It’s hard to imagine that from the 1860s until the early 1900s, the world’s first, oldest and at the time, biggest subway system, was pulled along using nothing but steam-power. In the crowded, cramped and claustrophobic environment of the London Underground, steam-power was hardly ideal. In fact, it was very uncomfortable riding in the Underground during this period and adequate ventilation had to be installed if the Underground was to maintain a practical, working public service for the people of London. Electrification of the Underground was proposed as early as 1880, but it wasn’t until about 1905 that electrical technology and understanding had progressed far enough to make this a practicality. Starting in the early 20th century, many of the original steam-trains that pulled carriages through the Undergorund were scrapped and replaced by modern, electrically-powered locomotives. Very few of the original Underground steam-locomotives from the 1860s and 70s survive today.

Under and Outwards

With the initial success of the original Metropolitan Railway, other underground railroad companies sprang up, almost overnight. Throughout the second half of the 1800s and the early 1900s, private companies dug and developed their own subway lines throughout London. As the 20th century progressed, the subway became more and more familiar and important to London. By the end of WWI, England had over a hundred big and small railroad companies. In the end, many of these were merged together with the Railways Act of 1921. Nationalisation of the railway system was completed in 1947 with the Transport Act. By the Second World War, the London Underground had grown immensely. By the early 1940s, there were many abandoned stations and stretches of the Underground which were never completed, due to a lack of money or a lack of necessity. Stations that were too close together were considered unnecessary and were closed down. Many of these were converted to air-raid shelters during The Blitz. Many of these stations still exist today and some are set aside specifically for filming-purposes by film-production companies, so that the actual London Underground won’t be disrupted by camera-crews and actors.

The Subway Goes Global

After the success of the London Underground, the subway began to spread around the world. The next subway opened in Glasgow, Scotland in 1891. The first American subway was opened in Boston, Massachusetts in 1897! The New York City Subway system was started in 1904. Previous to this, New York City had been serviced by its famous elevated railroad (commonly called the ‘El’). A horrific blizzard in 1888 dumped several feet of snow all over New York, which brought its above-ground train-service to a screeching halt.

Manhattan’s famous elevated railroad. Started in the 1860s, it lasted until the 1960s when it was gradually destructed. This photo was taken in 1944. The affect of heavy winter snowfalls on the New York elevated railroad was what prompted the construction of the now, world-famous New York City Subway in 1904

To prevent a repeat of this, the New York City Subway was constructed. Subways continue to be popular in countries where snow can affect above-ground railroad traffic, such as in Russia, Germany and Canada. While today subways are seen as modern, bright, fast and wonderful, or at times, a pain in the ass when your train comes late or it’s cramped or overcrowded, remember that they were born in an age of steam and steel, bricks, mortar and feverish industrial revolution.