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Many children have grown up in the shadow of a bridge, especially in a city like New York. In the late nineteenth century, the Lower East Side of that city was crowded with small children and one large bridge—that leading to Brooklyn—and life among the ever-present but ever-changing shadows cast by its approaches, abutments, decks, and towers was hard and squalid. Escape via the automobile to the suburbs was for many not yet even a realistic dream, and one did what one could do with what one had.

The stone towers of the Brooklyn Bridge had risen ever so slowly during the first half of the 1870s, and its cables had been spun equally slowly during the second half of the decade. As the bridge deck was hung in the early 1880s—piece by piece, like laundry from a line—the shadows cast by the structure lengthened and thickened over the tenements of New York City. There was a bright day of celebration and a still brighter evening of fireworks when the bridge opened in May 1883, and the central promenade that John Roebling had so thoughtfully designed above the traffic provided a welcome escape route from the heat and closeness of the tenements, if only for the hour or so it took to walk to Brooklyn and back, perhaps stopping midway to look out at New York Harbor.

Perhaps some found the bridge or its shadows oppressive, but the great structure provided an alternative to the ferries that so many people had daily to take back and forth across the East River. Others discovered in the bridge a new prosperity, with the uniting of the formally separate cities of New York and Brooklyn providing new opportunities for commercial growth and real-estate development. On the other hand, some residents of the Lower East Side may not have thought much about the bridge at all, especially if they were busy raising large families in small apartments, as so many of the immigrant factory-worker families in the neighborhood were. However, at least one child growing up in those apartments became obsessed with bridges of all kinds.

The New York approach to the Brooklyn Bridge, near where David Steinman spent his childhood (photo credit 6.1)

David Barnard Steinman was born on June 11, 1886, and his childhood might have seemed unremarkable even to himself had he not lived in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, which was to him not cold but warm. He grew up with the dominating bridge, whose towers looked over the city day and night, and whose arms of traffic reached far into the city, bringing and taking people and goods in unprecedented volume and with unprecedented speed. Not only was the Brooklyn Bridge there and functioning as a great communicator between what young David knew and what he could discover, but as he grew so did another bridge—the Williamsburg—under construction a mere mile or so away. For him, the Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridges became almost surrogate parents.

Eve and Louis Steinman were the real parents of David and his six siblings, but his hagiolatrous biographer, William Ratigan, no doubt acceded to Steinman’s wishes in keeping them as much out of his later life as possible. Ratigan’s 350-page biography has young David recalling only that his immigrant parents were lonesome, that “his father lashed him with a cat-o’-nine tails for wearing out his shoe leather” exploring Manhattan, and that “his mother wept.” Among Steinman’s few recorded recollections of his mother was of her “softly weeping” for the “cottage and the fields, the streams and meadows, of her native land,” which remained nameless. Neither Steinman’s mother nor father appears in the index to the biography, and there are no pictures of them or of his nameless siblings, from whom he learned the alphabet and the numbers. His first alluring taste of school was at five years old, when he was taken by his older sister to her teacher and principal so that he could show them his prowess in mathematics: “He could rattle off the powers of two: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, up to a million.” He was tested with mental multiplication problems, like 17 times 19 and 27 times 43, and he was rewarded with candy and visits to teachers’ homes, which “were a glimpse of another world.” A boxed charlotte russe brought home from one of those visits was such a treasure that it was nursed for nearly three weeks, being kept fresh on the fire escape because the Steinman apartment had no ice box. There is a mythic quality to Steinman’s childhood, to his finding solace mainly in the cradle of the Brooklyn Bridge’s cables and stays, and in the promise and reward of education.

Talk about building a new bridge across the East River to Williamsburg had, of course, begun even before the Brooklyn Bridge was opened, but a debate ensued as to whether the next crossing should be farther north instead, at Blackwell’s Island. Before young David Steinman had reached his tenth birthday, Theodore Cooper had prepared plans and specifications for a “steel wire suspension bridge, stiffened by a longitudinal girder,” between 59th and 60th streets, and Leffert Buck had had his plans approved for a new suspension bridge with four cables, each three inches larger in diameter than those of the Brooklyn Bridge, so that the elevated railway could be extended from the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn into New York. By the time David was twelve years old, the controversy had died down over the bare steel towers and the stepped-truss design of Buck’s bridge, and work on the foundations and anchorages had begun. The precocious and studious youngster took a keen interest in the construction project and began to seek opportunities for further education.

Like many a child of immigrants, without money or access to established private colleges, Steinman began attending the City College of New York. In fact, because of his precocity, he began taking college classes even while he was still in high school. Eventually, the ambitious and conscientious young student, with the help of one of his teachers, was able to obtain a pass to enter the Williamsburg Bridge construction site. He climbed upon the steelwork and proceeded across the catwalks set up for the cable-spinning operation, thus seeming to follow an inexorable pull toward a life of, on, and about bridges. Steinman had to work to put himself through college, but he graduated summa cum laude in 1906 with a bachelor-of-science degree. Since he wanted a degree in engineering, he applied to Columbia University, whose School of Mines had been established in 1864, just two years after the Morrill Land Grant Act had promoted an expansion of engineering schools around the country.

Steinman’s application was read by Professor William H. Burr, who endorsed it with a personal note: “The most deserving case I have known in all my years at Columbia.” The aggressive and assiduous young man was eventually able to piece together enough scholarships, fellowships, and nighttime teaching jobs at City College and Stuyvesant Evening High School to complete three degrees at Columbia. In 1909, he was awarded the A.M. and C.E. degrees, having written for the latter an engineering thesis entitled “The Design of the Henry Hudson Memorial Bridge as a Steel Arch.” Twenty-five years later, the Henry Hudson Bridge, connecting the uppermost tip of Manhattan and the Bronx, would be built by Steinman’s firm, substantially as he had designed it in his thesis.

Even while still a student, Steinman engaged in miscellaneous engineering work, including projects involving subways, elevated railways, and aqueducts for New York City, and in 1910 he accepted an offer to become the youngest professor of civil engineering in the country—at the University of Idaho. Although he was far from the Brooklyn Bridge, Steinman’s thoughts were not far from bridges. The following year, while continuing to teach in Moscow, Idaho, Steinman received his Ph.D. degree from Columbia. His dissertation, a comparative study of cantilever and suspension bridges, was of less urgency in the wake of the collapse of the Quebec cantilever, but nevertheless did treat a topic of keen interest to engineers. The work, Suspension Bridges and Cantilevers: Their Economic Proportions and Limiting Spans, was soon published under the same title as a textbook in the Van Nostrand Science Series, and a second edition appeared two years later. Steinman had an instinct for writing and publishing, especially on new, significant, and controversial topics, and he exploited it to the hilt. While teaching in Idaho, he also translated two books from the German: the highly mathematical Theory of Arches and Suspension Bridges, in which Josef Melan expounded the deflection theory that Moisseiff had introduced in the design of the Manhattan Bridge, and Melan’s Plain and Reinforced Concrete Arches. Such a prolific output was fast establishing Steinman as a successful academic, but he by no means neglected practical engineering—or practical self-promotion. It is difficult to imagine how otherwise Engineering News in 1913 carried an article on a timber cantilever bridge “built by a troop of Boy Scouts over the Potlatch River, Idaho, after a sketch made by Prof. D. B. Steinman.” The magazine could hardly have been expected to send a reporter to Idaho to cover the story, collect a sketch of the design, and take a photograph of the Boy Scouts flanking their engineer leader.

Professor William H. Burr, who strongly endorsed David Steinman’s application to Columbia University (photo credit 6.2)


David Steinman was not satisfied with building timber bridges with Boy Scouts, and he wrote to Gustav Lindenthal about the possibility of working with him on the Hell Gate Bridge, whose construction was then beginning in New York. Preceded by the credentials of his translation of Melan’s books on arches and suspension bridges, which had been published in 1913, the young engineer began working in New York as special assistant to Lindenthal, second only to Ammann, on July 1, 1914. Steinman personally calculated the internal loads, including those due to temperature changes, and visible deflections associated with the erection of the Hell Gate arch, and he supervised teams of engineers who measured the actual strains and displacements at key points on the structure. The design and construction of the great arch was based on theoretical calculations; the measurements on the actual bridge confirmed not only the validity of the specific calculations for that structure but also the basic validity of the theory itself, thus advancing the confidence of engineers to apply it to still larger structures, such as the Bayonne arch, in the future.

Steinman reported the results of his calculations, and their comparison with the measured values, in a paper presented at the same meeting of the American Society of Civil Engineers at which Ammann presented his paper on the design and construction of the Hell Gate Bridge. Next to Ammann’s global paper, which put the great project in historical perspective, Steinman’s appeared to be that of an engineer with his nose pressed to the drawing board, looking so closely at the details and how to calculate and check them with measurements as to lose sight of the bigger picture. There was, however, in Steinman’s paper a brief outline of the “growing movement” to supplement and check theoretical calculations with experimental measurements. Lindenthal and Steinman, at least, knew that the bigger picture was in jeopardy, as it had been in Quebec, without close and personal attention to details that rested solely on theory. At the end of his synopsis of his paper, Steinman gave “special acknowledgement” to Lindenthal, “who undertook to make these measurements in furtherance of engineering science.” Lindenthal, in his discussion of this “able paper,” explained that he had “wanted to ascertain what, if any, bending stresses remained in the trusses after erection,” recalling that such stresses had been significant enough to cause one of the steel tubes in the Eads Bridge to need replacing after it broke when the arch was closed. Lindenthal concluded his remarks with the confident assertion that, thanks to Steinman, “there are no unknown stresses in the Hell Gate Arch structure” to cause any cracking or breaking.

David Steinman (seventh from right) and Boy Scouts on the wooden cantilever bridge they built across a stream in Idaho(photo credit 6.3)

At the end of his paper, where acknowledgments were more traditionally made, Steinman mentioned those who had helped him with the new extensometer, or “strain gauge,” that was employed, and those who had helped with some of the calculations. Finally, he also thanked Ammann for unspecified “suggestions.” Ammann apparently could not graciously leave his involvement at that, however, and in a written discussion he expressed caveats about the generality of Steinman’s work: “The analysis of the painstakingly recorded stress measurements, made by Mr. Steinman, may lead the uninitiated reader to overlook the important fact that he has to do with an extremely special case, which may not repeat itself in the history of bridge construction.” Ammann also pointed out that “one important object” had not been accomplished by Steinman—namely, that the “actual stresses,” as opposed to the secondary and erection stresses referred to by Lindenthal, remained indeterminate. But, so as not to appear to be contradicting Lindenthal, Ammann added that “the expense for such further investigation is too heavy for an individual engineer”—an allusion to Lindenthal, who himself had assumed the costs of the study. Ammann suggested that a government agency or an engineering society in cooperation with the railroads should sponsor such a project.

In his closure to the discussions of his paper, Steinman pointed out that, contrary to Ammann’s suggestion that he was claiming more generality than his work allowed, there was “but one paragraph” in the entire paper that was “not a rigorous deduction from the results of the investigation,” and it was a simple statement of considered judgment as to how other structures might behave. With undertones somewhat at odds with the usual gentlemanly exchanges among members of a professional society discussing one another’s papers, Steinman wrote that he “would like to ask Mr. Ammann to point out anything in the summary of conclusions which can possibly be regarded as too far-reaching a deduction from the results of the investigation.” That there was a tension and competition between the two engineers was thus evident in the discussion of this early paper, and perhaps one aspect of it was highlighted in Steinman’s closure, in which he appears to have deliberately introduced titles before the names of the discussants, referring to Mr. Ammann and Dr. Lindenthal. Although Lindenthal’s doctorate from Dresden was honorary and Steinman’s from Columbia was earned, they shared a title of which he no doubt wished to remind Ammann.

Acknowledging Ammann at all may have been somewhat begrudging on Steinman’s part, because were it not for Ammann, Steinman might have been in charge of the entire project and thus the logical person to write the more comprehensive paper. When the war called Ammann back to Switzerland, Steinman had assumed responsibilities for the connecting-railroad project for which the Hell Gate Bridge was the engineering centerpiece. However, despite his increased responsibilities, Steinman continued to be paid his initial salary of $200 per month. It was only as a “wedding present,” when Steinman married Irene Hoffmann on June 9, 1915, that his salary was raised to the $225 which Ammann had been receiving. After Ammann returned from his stint in the Swiss army, Steinman was no longer to be second in command to Lindenthal: he seems clearly to have preferred the European-trained Ammann to the American Steinman, who seemed to want to forget his European roots.

David Steinman had also played an important role in the design and analysis of the Sciotoville Bridge, Lindenthal’s other technologically significant project of the period. As a result of the new methods Steinman had developed in the course of this work, Engineering Record“commissioned him to write a series of articles presenting his new design methods.” According to Steinman’s biographer Ratigan—a World War II correspondent and a writer of “stories and adventure serials”—when Ammann returned from Switzerland he reportedly persuaded Lindenthal to curtail his rival’s articles, although the impending consolidation of the journal with Engineering News may have been a less insidious factor. In any case, there was clearly a lot more than technical know-how to being a successful engineer—and to letting the world know about it.

Lindenthal reportedly called the younger engineer into his office one day and told him, “Steinman, bridge engineering is easy. It is the financial engineering that is hard.” A major part of Lindenthal’s complaint, which no doubt centered on his continuing frustrations in finding backers for his Hudson River Bridge proposal, was that bankers added millions of dollars in financing costs to bridges after “engineers had sweated and strained to secure the most economical design.” These words were evidently taken to heart by Steinman, an inveterate student who seemed to measure his life by his documented degrees, honors, and achievements, and almost to lust after any recognition or achievement that he did not yet have. Not that Steinman did not work for what he got. Upon recognizing that he had no formal training in the important aspect of engineering that Lindenthal had discussed, Steinman enrolled in a correspondence course in business administration, which he found invaluable in his later career. Even if this aspect of the engineering endeavor seemed subsequently not to have been Steinman’s favorite, he learned to talk the language of and to work with not only bankers and investors but also public officials and other nontechnical people essential to getting a large engineering project off the drawing board, and also off the ground. Lindenthal, on the other hand, for all his understanding of the importance of financing, saw no room for compromise in his plans. When the war put a stop to engineering projects, especially of the kind that he had dreamed about, Ammann may at least have given the impression of being more sympathetic to the elder engineer’s technical resolve. In any case, it was Ammann who was kept on Lindenthal’s payroll, however indirectly, and Steinman who was let go.

Years hence, when the two rivals would approve, if not compose, their own curricula vitae for Who’s Who in Engineering, Ammann would list his service under Lindenthal as extending from 1912 to 1923, not mentioning that some of those years were spent in exile at the New Jersey clay mine in which Lindenthal had an interest. Steinman’s record of service under the master extended only from 1914 to 1917. Their respective entries in the 1959 edition of this biographical dictionary tell a good deal more than factual details, however; they also tell a lot about the personalities of the engineers.

Ammann’s entry occupies only one column, though this could reflect either his relative shyness and modesty or his sense of security in his significant accomplishments. After the standard identification of his origins, education, and marital status, there is a chronological listing of his principal engineering projects, giving in parentheses the dollar value of the most significant ones. The entry concludes with a list of memberships in professional and other organizations.

Steinman’s Who’s Who entry offers a sharp contrast. Following a long list of engineering projects, but without any mention of their dollar value, there is a much longer list of honors, awards, and memberships, seemingly citing every organization from which he had ever received a certificate of membership or a statement of dues. More curious than what is included is what is omitted from the very beginning of Steinman’s entry. In a biographical dictionary whose entries customarily begin with a description of a person’s origins, Steinman’s contribution omits entirely any mention of his parents, as if he had maintained a firm resolve to suggest that his beginnings were in the stone and steel of a mythic bridge rather than in the flesh of immigrants. After his place and date of birth, the entry goes immediately to his education—including the number of medals, scholarships, and fellowships he won as a student pursuing his various degrees—as if to record that he did it all himself.

He was not merely keeping personal matters out of a professional biography, for his marriage is recorded, as are the names of his three children. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Steinman wished to obscure if not forget his origins, which were, according to a 1958 New York Times Magazine profile, “in the slums, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge,” giving a different twist to the bridge’s inspiration for his career. On the other hand, he was immensely proud of his marriage to Irene Hoffmann, daughter of a former member of the Faculty of Medicine at Vienna, who not only approved of his daughter’s marrying a young man with a Ph.D. but also encouraged her to do so, that he might have a son-in-law with whom he could discuss Kantian philosophy. Such dichotomies would naturally lead to tensions in Steinman’s later life, at which the biographical dictionary could only hint. In the mid-1950s, for example, he would be identified as one of many significant personalities who had begun life as a Jew and had made things happen. Yet, during the same period, Steinman himself was turning away from those roots, telling reporters that he was “active in Presbyterian affairs.”

In spite of whatever unresolved personal tensions he experienced, Steinman accomplished a great deal in his life and career. And in spite of the niggardly professional recognition Ammann gave him in discussions and reviews of his work, Steinman’s reputation became established through his books. In 1917, he accepted an appointment as professor of civil and mechanical engineering at his alma mater, City College of New York, which then was organizing a school of engineering. One day, in the spring of 1920, while Steinman was still head of the engineering school, he received a telephone call from “a man who modestly introduced himself as H. D. Robinson.” The two met, and Holton Robinson described to Steinman an international design competition for a bridge at Florianópolis, to connect that capital city of the off-coast island state of Santa Catarina with the Brazilian mainland, and proposed that they join in an effort to produce an entry.


Steinman had dreamed of actually building bridges of his own, but until that time, with the exception of directing the Boy Scout troop in building a modest cantilever, he had worked exclusively on others’. Now Robinson made it possible for him to participate as an equal partner in a major bridge project. It was a rare opportunity, for there was little work for bridge engineers in the early 1920s, and Steinman jumped at the chance. He went into private practice as a consulting engineer, renting a desk in the office of a friend for ten dollars a month and working on jobs for fees as small as five dollars. He soon got larger jobs, such as writing a survey for $250 and inspecting forty railroad bridges for a fee of ten dollars each. With business picking up, he was able in 1921 to move into his own office and hire assistants and draftsmen. Steinman invited Robinson to share this office, and the older engineer thus moved from “a drafting table in his home, where he did all computing and drafting himself,” including solving “difficult three-span catenary problems by suspending a fine chain against the wall and measuring the ordinates.” With Robinson’s practical experience and Steinman’s theoretical talents, technical traits that complemented each other as nicely as did the engineers’ different personalities, the partnership of Robinson & Steinman would be able to compete successfully for major bridge projects for many years to come.

Holton Duncan Robinson was a generation older than Steinman, having been born in 1863 at Massena, New York, near the Canadian border. He was the son of Ichabod Harvey and Isabelle McLeod Robinson, and his Scots-English ancestry included Sir Alexander Mackenzie, the Canadian explorer after whom the river is named. Robinson grew up on the family farm beside Robinson Bay, which is located on the St. Lawrence River, and from childhood he was “outstandingly shy, modest, and retiring.” He attended a local college, St. Lawrence, in nearby Canton, New York, and studied liberal arts and sciences, receiving a bachelor-of-science degree in 1886.

Young Robinson entered the engineering field through his uncle, the bridge builder George W. McNulty, who was associated with Leffert Buck. Buck and McNulty in turn had begun in engineering under Washington Roebling on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, and had started their own firm after that project was completed. Robinson began working on survey crews for Buck and McNulty and studying engineering at home. He slowly gained a variety of experience, being sent to the sites of various bridge projects, including one in the small town of Suspension Bridge, New York, where he took charge of repairs on the stiffening truss of John Roebling’s aging Niagara Gorge Bridge. After a few years as draftsman and assistant engineer in the chief engineer’s office of the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad Company, Robinson accepted an offer to return, as chief draftsman, to work under Buck, who was then chief engineer planning the Williamsburg Bridge. Robinson eventually became assistant engineer in charge of cable construction on the bridge, remaining so when Lindenthal became bridge commissioner. (Perhaps Holton Robinson and young David Steinman may actually have passed each other on the catwalks.) In 1904, after the Williamsburg Bridge had opened, Robinson was transferred to the Manhattan Bridge project and placed in charge of design and construction—again under Buck, who was consulting engineer to Othniel Foster Nichols, an 1868 graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who was chief engineer of New York’s Department of Bridges from 1904 to 1906, in which position he oversaw the redesign of the Manhattan Bridge after Lindenthal’s departure from the position of commissioner.

Holton Robinson, when he was engineer in charge of construction of the Williamsburg Bridge (photo credit 6.4)

Robinson left the employ of the city in 1907 to join the Glyndon Contracting Company, fabricator of the cables for the Manhattan Bridge. Besides designing the machinery to effect the spinning of the twenty-one-inch cables, then the largest ever, during his tenure with Glyndon he produced an unsuccessful design for a suspension bridge to cross the St. Lawrence River at Quebec, where the great cantilever had failed. He left Glyndon in 1910 to build, as an independent contractor, a suspension bridge near his hometown; this structure was completed in about six months at a cost of $40,000, 50 percent lower than the lowest bid that had been received by the town of Massena. Over the next several years, Robinson worked on a variety of bridge, tunnel, and navy war projects; his experience was broad and deep by the time Steinman met the “modest, distinguished-looking man” in 1920.

In 1922, Robinson was appointed consulting engineer for cable construction on the Delaware River Bridge between Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey. He assured the joint commission that, instead of four smaller ones, two cables of thirty-inch diameter could be spun, thus simplifying construction, and he supervised their design before resigning as consulting engineer to work for the contractor, the Keystone State Construction Company, which was to make the cables. The office of Robinson & Steinman, in turn, was given responsibility for designing the temporary work and machinery needed to accomplish the task. In 1926, at a joint meeting of the Franklin Institute and the Philadelphia section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Robinson, then in his early sixties, presented his first technical paper, “Construction of the Cables of the Delaware River Bridge.” For all his accomplishments, his boyhood shyness had not left him; “he suffered excruciatingly from stage fright and the experience so unnerved him that he vowed he would never repeat it.”

He may have eschewed public speaking, but Robinson did not shy away from the physical challenges bridge engineers had constantly to face. According to Steinman,

Even in his last years, Mr. Robinson was active, agile, and fearless in his outdoor work on bridges. He would climb on high steelwork or walk the cables of a suspension bridge with greater ease than most younger engineers. In 1941, during the investigations that followed the Tacoma Narrows … disaster, he was retained by the insurance companies, and made a personal examination of the cables of the wrecked structure. Although seventy-eight years old at the time, he calmly walked out over the 17½-in. cables, each 5,900 ft long and 450 ft high at each tower, to examine the condition of the wires and to cut out samples of the wire at midspan. His feat was rendered more difficult and hazardous by the fact that the hand ropes in the main span had been wrecked.

Thus, in spite of his social reticence, Robinson suffered no fear in the face of technical or physical challenges. Steinman, on the other hand, was, ostensibly at least, as comfortable before large audiences as he was on tall bridges. The partnership of Robinson & Steinman, extremely complementary and compatible, would last for a quarter-century without a written contract between the men.

The project that brought them together, the Florianópolis Bridge, was a success, thanks in large part to an unusual and distinguishing structural design by Steinman that had the eyebar chains doubling as the curved upper chord of the stiffening trusses, which resulted in a very economical structure. When it was completed in 1926, the Florianópolis Bridge, with a main span of over eleven hundred feet, was the largest in South America, and the largest eyebar suspension bridge in the world. Steinman’s article on the design of the bridge appeared in Engineering News-Record late in 1924, and he explained how the bridge was originally “designed along conventional lines,” which meant a wire-cable structure that looked very much like the Williamsburg Bridge, with which Robinson was so familiar. When a decision based on economy was made to use eyebars rather than cables, however, this led to a reconsideration of the truss, into which the eyebars then became incorporated. According to Steinman, first sketches showed a “most pleasing outline” for the truss, which curved as it did at the towers, but straight chords were employed in the final design, “in deference to the preference expressed by our client.” Such compromises might not be made by an engineer like Lindenthal, but Robinson and Steinman were more interested in establishing their firm’s reputation for economical and reliable work than in making an engineering or artistic statement.

The Florianópolis Bridge, as originally designed by Robinson & Steinman, and as altered to suit the client (photo credit 6.5)

The new truss-eyebar arrangement produced a very stiff bridge with less material, and such an economical solution was something which other suspension bridge engineers would now have to take into account. It presented a realistic alternative to the stiffened cables or stiffened eyebars, such as the kind Lindenthal had proposed for his North River Bridge, which were not integrated with a deck truss. An immediate response to Steinman’s article came in the form of a letter to the editor from Leon Moisseiff, who took exception to Steinman’s claim that his structure was the first to incorporate a bridge’s chain or cable into a stiffening truss that continued for the entire length of the main span. Moisseiff included a drawing of his 1907 design for a bridge over the Kill von Kull, which, “for better appearance,” continued the line of the truss through the towers. But a drawing is not a bridge.

Moisseiff was, in a sense, echoing Ammann’s review, two years earlier, of Steinman’s book, A Practical Treatise on Suspension Bridges: Their Design, Construction and Erection. Since Ammann had written little for publication on suspension bridges up to that time, Lindenthal would actually have been the much more logical reviewer for Engineering News-Record to have chosen, and it seems very possible that he may indeed have passed the book on to his assistant chief engineer at the North River Bridge Company, as Ammann’s affiliation was identified over the review. The review itself might best be described as mixed, with Ammann finding parts done with “fair completeness” and thus providing a “useful manual, especially for the student or young engineer,” but also criticizing the book for not discussing matters of aesthetics. According to Ammann, Steinman also discriminated “against the eyebar chain” on technical grounds, but he was in fact ever flexible in his thinking, as the Florianópolis Bridge was to demonstrate.

Steinman, both with Robinson and independently, began to get more and more significant commissions, and the younger partner wrote about them with facility. The Carquinez Strait Bridge, located about twenty-five miles northeast of San Francisco, was one such project. Consisting of two main spans of eleven hundred feet, it became the second-largest cantilever in the United States and the fourth-largest in the world when it was completed in 1927. The chief engineer of the bridge project was Charles Derleth, Jr., with William H. Burr as consulting engineer and Steinman as design engineer.

But Steinman’s real ambition was to build world-class suspension bridges that would also be recognized as things of beauty. Though the Florianópolis Bridge was a major structure, its oddness of type and compromised lines, not to mention its location, put it in a category almost by itself. A new opportunity arose, albeit still off the beaten track, with the Mount Hope Bridge, which Steinman designed, and whose construction the firm of Robinson & Steinman supervised “to take the Island out of Rhode Island.” The total length of this bridge was over a mile, and its twelve-hundred-foot main span put it almost in a class with the major suspension bridges of the day. Its cross-braced towers suggested a Gothic arch above the roadway, and the bracing was topped by a crown of smaller crosses, this latter feature echoing somewhat the tower tops of several contemporary suspension bridges, including Modjeski’s Delaware River Bridge, whose towers Pennell so disliked. Steinman’s Mount Hope towers have a balanced look, however, and are in good proportion to the uniformly deep truss of the roadway. The bridge received the 1929 Award of the American Institute of Steel Construction as the most artistic new long-span bridge in America.

At the same time, the firm of Robinson & Steinman was designing the St. Johns Bridge over the Willamette River at Portland, Oregon. With a twelve-hundred-foot main span supported from rope-strand cables, which for such a distance were found to be somewhat more economical than parallel-wire cables spun in place, this bridge was then the longest suspension type west of Detroit. According to Steinman, perhaps responding to Ammann’s criticism, “the desire to secure a beautiful public structure was a governing consideration” in the design, and the towers were the result of “extensive architectural studies,” although he identified no particular architect or style. The unique towers have battered (i.e., slightly inclined) sides, spires, and, in a more extreme fashion than the Mount Hope Bridge, Gothic arches above and below the roadway. The stiffening truss, however, is undistinguished, and there does not seem to be a successful integration of towers and deck. Although the bridge was described in the Robinson & Steinman firm’s brochure, Bridges Lasting and Beautiful, as “a poem stretched across the river” and “a symphony in stone and steel,” the aesthetic success of the towers and the overall bridge can be debated. The towers were designed to echo and harmonize with the dramatic scenery of evergreens, mountains, and clouds, visible through the four-hundred-foot-tall structures, but they seem too unintegrated into the natural setting. In something of a departure from tradition, the bridge was painted a pale green. In 1931, “on a gusty, rainy day,” Robinson and Steinman, whose firm had complete charge of design and construction, gave the newly completed crossing its final inspection from the open cockpit of a stunt plane which Tex Rankin, “northwest flying ace,” flew around the towers and over and under the roadway. Both engineers were thrilled by the experience, and with the bridge.

In his memoir of Robinson, who died in 1945, Steinman described him as being “professionally connected with the construction of almost every notable suspension bridge built during his lifetime,” a fact that “was his chief pride.” Without detracting from Steinman’s eulogy of Robinson, this could be said of a number of the great bridge engineers; indeed, it almost naturally followed, because great engineers wanted to be associated with great bridges, whose designs in turn relied on a variety of engineers who had a variety of experience with the unique and specialized design and construction problems that were faced. Sometimes, of course, as in the case of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the greatness of the engineers has come to seem more important than the design itself.

In any event, who would consult on what bridge had a lot to do with who was the chief engineer, of course, and who had the dominant reputation or the most correct politics at the time. When plans for the George Washington Bridge were being finalized in the mid-1920s, for example, Lindenthal, because of his relationship with Ammann, was a problematic choice as a consulting engineer. On the one hand, he was the engineer who had been most visibly associated with such a Hudson River project; on the other, his inflexibility and prior relationship to Ammann put him in a special category. Robinson, because of his extensive experience, was a natural choice, but his then recent association with Steinman may have presented problems for Ammann. As for Steinman himself, for all his writing about bridges, he was only just beginning to gain his first experience with their design and construction. In some accounts, however, Robinson and Steinman, in particular, “helped to design” the bridge, as consultants on the erection of the steel superstructure, even though they are not listed among the consulting engineers in the dedication program.


The 1930s were a heyday of large-bridge construction, with the George Washington opening in 1931 and the two great bridges connecting San Francisco with Marin County and with Oakland under construction simultaneously. Of these, the bridge to Oakland was actually completed first, in 1936, but it was to be permanently overshadowed by the Golden Gate, completed six months later, in 1937, with its world-record span of forty-two hundred feet between towers. The beginning of construction of the lesser-known structure took place in mid-1933, with President Franklin Roosevelt setting off a blast by remote control from Washington, and the first earth being turned up with a golden spade. At this ceremony, Herbert Hoover called the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge “the greatest bridge yet erected by the human race,” yet until the 1989 earthquake it remained largely unknown outside the Bay Area, where it serves such an important transportation role. Among the reasons for its relative obscurity must also be counted the fact that this bridge had no single prominent and dominant dreamer like a Roebling, Lindenthal, Ammann, or Strauss serving as executive director and providing a visible personality to the project. Even its official name—San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge—is impersonal and awkward; it has often been abbreviated to the Transbay, or simply the Bay Bridge, the name by which it is best known locally.

In spite of these differences, the Bay Bridge, like all great engineering projects, did encompass a long history of dreams and dreamers. Talk of having a bridge between San Francisco and Oakland began shortly after the Gold Rush and continued throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century. The 1906 earthquake distracted attention from a bridge, since the city had to be rebuilt, and in the meantime a ferry system carrying four million vehicles and fifty million passengers a year developed. Agitation for a bridge again arose, only to be suppressed by the world war. In the decade after the war, numerous applications for bridge-building franchises were filed, only to meet continuing opposition by the War Department, especially for a bridge north of Hunters Point, across the bay from Alameda. By the end of that decade, the progress of the Port of New York Authority in financing and constructing the 179th Street bridge across the Hudson had led to calls for a West Coast bridge supported by revenue bonds. A San Francisco Bay Bridge Commission was appointed by President Hoover, which seems ultimately to have made the objections of the War Department less absolute; the state highway engineer Charles H. Purcell was appointed as secretary.

The San Francisco Bay area, showing the locations of the Carquinez Strait, Golden Gate, and San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridges (photo credit 6.6)

Purcell was born in 1883 in North Bend, Nebraska, and attended Stanford and the University of Nebraska, where in 1906 he received his B.S. in civil engineering. He began working for the Union Pacific Railroad in Wyoming, then held positions in Nevada, New York, and Peru, with smelting, refining, and mining companies, before returning to construction and railroad work in the Pacific Northwest. In 1913, he joined the Oregon State Highway Department, which was then just forming, and became its first state bridge engineer. He accepted an appointment in 1917 as bridge engineer for the United States Bureau of Roads, and two years later became district engineer for the bureau, serving in Portland. He moved to California in 1927, to become state highway engineer there. Among the notable structures for which he was responsible is the Bixby Creek Bridge, located in the dramatic setting of the coast highway south of Carmel. This 330-foot reinforced-concrete arch, designed in conjunction with F. W. Panhorst, has been described as being “among the lightest and most graceful structures of this type in the United States.” But Purcell’s greatest achievement certainly has to be the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. His involvement with the project began when he and Charles E. Andrew, bridge engineer with the California State Highway Department, were placed in charge of “studies and investigations of engineering, location, and traffic” for a bay crossing.

In the meantime, the state legislature had created a California Toll Bridge Authority, which provided the means for financing the project. Sound technical considerations regarding such important matters as foundations led Purcell and Andrew to recommend a bridge route from Rincon Hill in San Francisco to Yerba Buena Island, also known as Goat Island, which was occupied jointly by the U.S. Army, Navy, and Lighthouse services, and then on to Oakland. (The adjacent Treasure Island was to be created as the site of the 1939 exposition to commemorate the completion of both the Golden Gate and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.) Including approaches, the total length of such a bridge would exceed eight miles, half of which was over the bay; to cross each of the two stretches of water, engineers would have to devise independent structural solutions as great as any single major bridge then extant or under construction. After preliminary designs and underwater borings were made in 1930 and 1931, a San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Division of the Department of Public Works was set up, with Purcell as chief engineer, Andrew as bridge engineer, and Glenn B. Woodruff as engineer of design. The board of consulting engineers comprised Ralph Modjeski, the chairman, who with J. Vipond Davies had made a preliminary survey for such a project a decade earlier; the partners Daniel E. Moran and Carlton S. Proctor; Leon Moisseiff; Charles Derleth, Jr.; and Henry J. Brunnier.

Engineers making final inspection of San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (left to right): Charles Derleth, Jr., Glenn B. Woodruff, Leon S. Moisseiff, Henry J. Brunnier, Charles H. Purcell, Carlton S. Proctor, Ralph Modjeski, and Charles E. Andrew(photo credit 6.7)

In an article in Engineering News-Record, subtitled “A Review of Preliminaries,” Purcell, Andrew, and Woodruff described some of the site and design alternatives they had considered. Though they confessed that it would be impossible for them, in this paper, to “consider the large number of tentative designs that were made,” they did discuss several, which included cantilevers longer than the Quebec Bridge and suspension bridges almost the equal of the Golden Gate. They admitted that the forty-one-hundred-foot suspension design “presented strong temptations” for its acceptance: “It required fewer departures from past practice than any alternate layout, reduced the number of piers to be constructed and was a more monumental structure.” However, it did present some drawbacks: it would have required a large amount of material to construct the San Francisco anchorage and to stiffen the truss against the wind. Furthermore, the longer span would have provided inferior clearance for shipping, required the destruction of some piers, and cost about $3 million more than the adopted design.

Detailed considerations of the many alternative design possibilities led the group of engineers to recommend that the “bridge,” which was really two distinct bridges separated by a tunnel through an island, would consist of: (1) a unique pair of double-deck suspension bridges, each with a main span of 2,310 feet, arranged in tandem and sharing a common central anchorage in the middle of the water; (2) a 540-foot tunnel through Yerba Buena Island, with a bore larger than any other tunnel in the world; and (3) a great truss bridge laid out in a sweeping curve, with a cantilever section fourteen hundred feet long, which made it the longest and heaviest cantilever span in the U.S. and the third-longest in the world, flanked by a number of other spans exceeding five hundred feet. (It was on this latter portion of the bridge that a section of the upper deck fell during the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, and the traffic disruption during the month when the bridge was closed for repairs provided many opportunities to reflect on the importance of the communications link that the bridge provided between San Francisco and communities, like Oakland, on the east side of the Bay.) In June 1933, the start of construction was marked on the island by a ceremony that included the explosion set off from Washington by President Roosevelt, and the symbolic beginning of excavation with the use of the golden spade. Chief engineer Purcell expressed the hope that traffic would be using the bridge by January 1937.

The opening of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge actually took place late in 1936, ahead of Purcell’s public hopes as well as of the completion of the Golden Gate. Like all such events, the opening provided an opportunity to look both backward and forward. Among the episodes in San Francisco Bay history that was recalled on the occasion was the story of “a shrewd and likable fellow” named Joshua A. Norton, who had come to California during the 1849 Gold Rush, “attained considerable importance and amassed a fortune,” only to lose it and his mind. Returning to the area after years of absence, he declared himself “Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico and Sole Owner of the Guano Islands,” and issued paper money, which was honored by the locals, who humored him. Among the many imperial proclamations issued by Emperor Norton was one ordering the Coast Guard to blockade Carquinez Strait, long before Steinman’s cantilever crossed it, and one inviting Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis to meet and arbitrate an end to the Civil War, an invitation they did not accept. But the document most on the minds of those celebrating the completion of the Bay Bridge was the following:


We, Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, do order and direct … that a suspension bridge be constructed from the improvements lately ordered by our royal decree at Oakland Point to Yerba Buena, from thence to the mountain range of Saucilleto.… Whereof fail not under pain of death.

Given under our hand this 18th day of August, A.D. 1869, and in the 17th year of our reign, in our present Capitol [sic], the city of Oakland.


Norton I.—Emperor

Though Norton’s bridge might have been an even grander span than the one built, at the same time snubbing San Francisco and making the Golden Gate Bridge unnecessary for getting to Marin County, at least from Oakland, the order certainly leaves no doubt that dreams of bridges were grand during the emperor’s reign. In 1936, the builders of the Bay Bridge saw the historical anomaly not as just an amusing footnote to the story of their own bridge, but as a testament to dreams of all kinds: “Who is bold enough to say that they will not some day be fulfilled?” Many decades after Norton flourished, the actual bridge inspired the Spanish-language poet Jorge Carrera Andrade to write Canto al Puente de Oakland, one verse of which reads, in translation:

Your length like a river or like buoyant hope

—miles of iron and of sky interwoven—

can only be measured with the music

or the metres of dream.

Just as so many New York City bridges owe their existence and appearance to a group of engineers who worked for government bodies of one form or another, so did the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge owe its final form to the talents and abilities of California state engineers like Purcell and Andrew. Consulting engineers play a crucial role whenever it comes to particular questions of detail, experience, and precedent, but the creative and political sympathy and savvy of career government employees around the nation have also played significant roles in shaping the built environment. Among such engineers was Conde McCullough.

Conde Balcom McCullough was born to a physician and his wife in 1887 in Redfield, South Dakota. As a young man, he attended Iowa State College, from which he received his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1910. After a first engineering job in Des Moines, he joined the Iowa State Highway Department, beginning as a designing engineer in 1911 and rising to assistant state highway engineer by the time he left, in 1916, to join the Civil Engineering Department at Oregon State College. Within two years, he had risen to the rank of professor and was head of the department, but he left the college the following year to become state bridge engineer for the State Highway Department. In order better to understand and deal with the legal constraints on his job, McCullough also went to law school, at Willamette University, receiving the bachelor of laws degree and being admitted to the Oregon State Bar in 1928. He wrote a considerable number of articles and books on bridges, economics, and law, including—with his attorney son, John McCullough—a two-volume work, The Engineer at Law.

Artist’s conception of how the San Francisco—Oakland Bay Bridge would look when completed (photo credit 6.8)

The completed San Francisco—Oakland Bay Bridge, showing its tandem suspension bridges, tunnel, and cantilever sections (photo credit 6.9)

Conde McCullough’s creations in steel and reinforced concrete are even more responsible for Oregon’s overall reputation for beautiful bridges than are Lindenthal’s and Steinman’s efforts in the state. McCullough’s Bridge of the Gods and his Caveman and Rogue River bridges, this last incorporating the innovative prestressing techniques developed by the French engineer Eugène Freyssinet, are as graceful and whimsical as their names. The Coos Bay cantilever, which in 1936 completed one of the last major links in the Oregon Coast Highway, was designed by McCullough and was dedicated to him after his death in 1946. The Conde B. McCullough Memorial Bridge thus joined the exclusive group that includes the Eads Bridge at St. Louis and the Roebling Bridge at Cincinnati in being named for its engineer.

Not every engineer who works for the government or a government-related agency gets an opportunity to be as broadly based in his work as McCullough did in the course of a career, but some certainly have and do. The shy Ammann, for example, who may have appeared on the surface to be apolitical and uninterested in law or public affairs, did engage in politics of a private nature. After all, it was he who wooed the future governor of New Jersey with plans for a Hudson River Bridge, which he in turn could advocate in his inaugural address, and for which he also could recommend Ammann himself as the project engineer. The independent Steinman, on the other hand, engaged more in a politics of a quite open and different kind—namely, the politics of his profession, for which he had begun to emerge, in the 1920s, as the most energetic and articulate spokesman.


In 1925, David Steinman, then president of the American Association of Engineers, wrote an article on “Outstanding Practice Problems of the Profession,” which appeared in Engineering News-Record. The article reported on the results of a survey that asked “representative engineers of national reputation for their views on ethical conduct in negotiations for professional services.” Steinman had not, of course, discovered this issue, which involved “how far the engineer may solicit an engagement without invitation; whether he should decline to do so competitively; whether a warning against competition should be included in the code of engineering ethics; and what can be done by the profession to combat the evil of inadequate fees.” However, though Steinman had no doubt heard a lot relating to such topics in Lindenthal’s office a decade earlier, the issues had become much more openly articulated in the meantime, going well beyond the pages of trade journals.

The Conde B. McCullough Memorial Bridge over Coos Bay on the Oregon coast, one of the few bridges in America named for their engineers (photo credit 6.10)

The American Society of Civil Engineers, begun in 1852 as the American Society of Civil Engineers and Architects, joined in 1916 the so-called founder societies, which then included the American Institute of Mining Engineers, dating from 1871; the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, from 1880; and the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, from 1884 and now known as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. The proliferation of engineering societies in America followed only shortly after the same phenomenon in Britain, where the Institution of Civil Engineers, originally intended to encompass all of engineering that was not military, became only one among a plethora of specialized institutions, such as the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institution of Electrical Engineers. These were formed in large part because proponents of new areas of developing technology were not so easily integrated into the existing societies by their more traditional counterparts. By the early years of the twentieth century, there was such a diversity of engineering societies, differentiated largely by the technical specialty of their members, that engineers felt that there was no single voice for the profession itself.

Among the organizations formed “to address the social and economic interests of the engineer regardless of technical discipline,” was the American Association of Engineers, founded in 1914. There were two schools of thought among its founders, one of which “favored establishing a labor union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor,” and the other of which “visualized a professional society, avoiding the coercion normally inherent in labor organizations.” The latter philosophy prevailed, and the American Association of Engineers was about twenty-five thousand strong when Steinman assumed its presidency. At the time, the question of professional ethics was a lively topic of debate, even though the technical societies had been talking about such matters for fifty years. In 1912, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers had finally adopted codes of ethics, and so, in 1914, did the American Society of Civil Engineers. The codes of these founder societies, as well as those of the American Association of Engineers, were thought to be too general and too subject to interpretation by some of its members, however, and in 1923 a number of “practice cases,” or case studies, had been issued to remove some of the ambiguities.

This did not solve everything, of course, and when Steinman’s article on outstanding practice problems appeared in Engineering News-Record, it occasioned an editorial on the subject. According to the editors, it had to be admitted that the profession’s ethics were “neither satisfactorily formulated nor universally followed,” and existing codes were “made up of fine words which no one can controvert but of such embracing vagueness that interpretation is a matter of individual desire.” The editorial continued: “Certain things are permissible, certain other things lie beyond the pale. In between is territory where the engineer may roam at will. There is no Supreme Court which interprets the law and publicly enforces it.” Steinman’s undertaking for the American Association of Engineers was held out as a step toward “disciplinary control.” The “question of competition for business” was seen to be central to the problem, and engineers were thought to need “something comparable in solemnity to the doctor’s Hippocratic oath.” Unfortunately, it was a difficult time to be discussing such ideals, since business for engineers was no better than it was for the rest of the economy:

In plain words there are more practising engineers, acting as principals, than there are jobs. There is the constant struggle for the majority of those principals to get enough of the existing work to maintain themselves as principals and to keep from falling back into the ranks of the employed, ranks that are apparently not so crowded as are the upper strata of the employing class. Work, too, must be sought to a large extent not from old clients, as is the case with the doctor and the lawyer, but from new interests who too frequently know nothing about engineers or engineering. Competition becomes a dominant factor in independent engineering, and the selfish motive strong in those who are trying to practice it.

The problem of the code, therefore, is to set up an altruistic motive that will reinforce and justify the selfish one. It is not enough merely to assume that everybody agrees that certain things are not to be done; reasons must be given why they are not to be done. Because such reasons generally go back to the underlying necessities for truth and justice and honor, they lack force, for generalities on ethical conduct are always subject to individual interpretation. They must, therefore, be put on the more practical ground that self advancement lies also in the advancement of the profession one practices.

These were tough times in which to aspire to such ideals, but discussions of the kind initiated by Steinman were seen as the way to proceed to raise simultaneously the general status of the profession and the level of its practice. In the meantime, another engineering organization, the Federated American Engineering Societies, was formed, with Herbert Hoover as its first president. This organization of societies, not of individuals, was created “to further the public welfare whenever technical knowledge and engineering experience are involved.” A third organization, the Engineers’ Council for Professional Development, was formed in 1932 “primarily to increase the input of the practicing profession into the educational process.” The issues remain to this day, having outlasted the organizations, which have been transformed several times since.

Another development in the 1920s and into the 1930s was the increasing number of states that had instituted registration laws, thus placing “engineering on a par with law and medicine as legally restricted and recognized learned professions,” according to Steinman, who was among the most outspoken proponents of such registration laws. Between 1907, when Wyoming enacted the first such statute, and 1935, engineering registration was established in thirty-two states containing over 85 percent of the engineers in the country. Among the arguments he put forth in his many talks and articles on the subject were the following:

The public needs to be protected against the quack, the incompetent, the unscrupulous, and the impostor, who do not belong in our profession but nevertheless practice in its name.…

The public judges a profession by the examples it meets. When the public sees men who are unlettered and untrained holding themselves out as “engineers,” respect for the engineering profession is weakened or destroyed. When the public sees the word “engineer” on the shop window of a plumber, an electrician, a radio dealer, or an automobile mechanic, a wrong picture of the engineering profession is implanted.

For years, the engineering profession talked about this problem—the abuse and misuse of the term “engineer”—but nothing was done about it. Finally with the aid of registration laws, means for successfully protecting our designation became available.

At first, public officials were slow to co-operate. They declared that we could not “copyright the dictionary.” We pointed to the precedents of the other legally established professions which had successfully “copyrighted large chunks of the dictionary.” Any unlicensed man hanging out his shingle as a “lawyer,” a “physician,” a “dentist,” or an “architect” will be promptly arrested and subjected to the penalties of the law.

Steinman believed so strongly in registration that he thought it should be a requirement for membership in engineering societies, but established groups like the American Society of Civil Engineers were not receptive to such an idea. Indeed, as with college degrees and other non-society designations they would not include the letters “P.E.,” indicating registration as a professional engineer, after the names of engineers appearing in society publications. Thus, in 1934, Steinman invited representatives of four relatively young state societies of professional engineers to join him at the Columbia University Club in New York for an organizational meeting of a new group, the National Society of Professional Engineers, whose membership would be restricted to registered professional engineers and whose activities would be limited to the “nontechnical concerns of all engineers.” Not surprisingly, Steinman became the society’s first president.

With the establishment of registration laws and the growing proliferation of engineering schools, entry into the profession via the self-taught route of an Eads, or even the semiformal educational route of a Lindenthal, became less and less common. Though state licensure regulations included grandfather clauses so established practitioners were not excluded no matter what their route to their practice, and allowed for responsible experience as a substitute for formal education, earning an engineering degree was increasingly the way to become an engineer.

As president of a national group, Steinman spoke and wrote frequently on matters relating to the profession, including engineering education. Whereas so many in his profession less than a century earlier had little if any formal education, Steinman expected the engineer of the twentieth century to be a lettered individual. Then, when identifying himself to strangers as an engineer, he would not hear “an involuntary exclamation,” as Herbert Hoover once did from a woman he had met while traveling, followed by her admission, “Why, I thought you were a gentleman!” Hence, among the ways Steinman saw to advance the status of the profession was the manner in which engineers were educated. This had changed to a considerable degree since the nineteenth century, but he saw reasons for it to change further still:

The four-year course may have been adequate two generations ago, but the increasing content of essential engineering knowledge and the growing recognition of the desirability of a background of liberal and cultural studies for a professional man have altered the picture. Those of us who took a complete college course before entering an engineering school have never regretted it.… Personally, I favor a pre-engineering college course of two years, ultimately of four. This is in line with the best standards achieved in other professions.

Although Steinman might have changed “men” to “men and women” if he were writing today, he would have to change little else, for the issue of what form an engineering education should take, and whether it should follow a general college degree, is still a matter of some discussion. A strong argument can also be made that engineering, which is “essentially a mode of thought based on a mastery of the laws of nature,” should be a component of all liberal education in an age that must deal with problems not only of bridging ever-wider chasms, both literally and figuratively, but also of undoing some of the inherited neglect and environmental legacies of earlier times.

In addition to advocating the liberal education and registration of engineers, Steinman pushed for use of the professional title “Engineer” or “Engr.” with personal names, which he likened to physicians’ use of “Dr.” Adopting the practice for himself, Steinman began to sign his letters “Engr. D. B. Steinman.” On this issue, however, not even Engineering News-Record was in his corner. In an editorial commenting on Steinman’s introduction of the proposal at the first annual meeting of his National Society of Professional Engineers, the magazine retorted: “Engineers above all are supposed to be logical; do they propose to follow the present plan to its logical conclusion with Physician Jones, Dentist Smith, Chiropractor Brown—or Barber Cavello, for that matter, for barbers too are licensed in the interest of public safety?”

Among the letters to the editor on the subject was one from Ing. Robert B. Brooks, Jr., who pointed out that the “Mexican engineer is a titled individual.” Indeed, in many Spanish-speaking countries, the earned title “Ingeniero” is a mark of distinction, as is the title “Ingenieur” in Germany. But such traditions were not easily introduced in America, “where titles have been looked upon with disfavor.” No matter the inconsistency of Engineering News-Record in forgetting that the young country did confer the titles of doctor, senator, general, captain, professor, and the like; the time was not propitious for Steinman to be suggesting the adoption of the title of engineer. Though his commitment to the issue never fully disappeared, it seems to have flagged a bit after he completed his two terms as president of the National Society of Professional Engineers. Among the things that competed for his time and attention were the new opportunities that had arisen for engineers generally to undertake bridge projects following such eminently successful and prominent models as the George Washington Bridge, in which the structure was paid for by the tolls levied on the traffic using it.


All the great bridge designers seemed to want to hold the record for the longest span, but there were only so many locations that needed or could justify a bridge of record size. Among the last of the great unbridged crossings in the United States that remained unspoken for in the mid-1930s was the entrance to New York Harbor known as the Narrows. Ammann was only one engineer working clandestinely at the time on plans for a bridge at that location. Steinman also saw the crossing not only as the opportunity to regain the span record for the East Coast, but also as the opportunity of a lifetime for an engineer who wished to be memorialized in his work. Though perhaps not quite so obsessive about what Steinman would call his “Liberty Bridge” as Lindenthal was with his North River Bridge, Steinman nevertheless worked on and off on the design for twenty-five years, possibly having an idea for the structure as early as 1926. It was planned to have a main span of 4,620 feet, “a thousand feet longer than the George Washington span” and over four hundred greater than the Golden Gate. Steinman would also point out that it would have a clearance of 235 feet above high water, “100 feet higher than the East River Bridge,” of his great hero Roebling, and towers eight hundred feet high, “higher than the Woolworth Building.”

David Steinman’s unrealized Liberty Bridge (photo credit 6.11)

After the death of Holton Robinson, Steinman practiced under his own name for fifteen years. The cover of a brochure issued by D. B. Steinman in the late 1940s was dominated by a sketch of Liberty Bridge. A smaller reproduction of this same sketch had appeared without identification or comment on the inside title page of a Robinson & Steinman brochure dating from the early 1930s, but now a description of the cover declared that Steinman’s dream would be “the world’s greatest engineering achievement. Furthermore, spanning the gateway to America, it will be a symbol of our free, vital civilization, a portal of hope and courage—an inspiring symbol of the spirit of America.” These postwar words may have been intended to rouse support for his dream bridge, and they may indeed have done that among his friends and associates, but Steinman apparently did not have the ear of Robert Moses, the person who, perhaps more than any other single individual, controlled whether a bridge would be built across the Narrows and, if it would, who would build it. Ironically, Steinman, the supreme politician of his profession, seems to have been much more naïve in the local politics of bridge building than Ammann or Strauss in their quests to erect a great bridge in a great municipality. Nevertheless, as late as 1948, in an interview that appeared in The New York Times, Steinman said, “I expect Liberty Bridge to be built and hope to be identified with it.” After that achievement, he would be ready to retire, he allowed, but an aging engineer had to do more than hope to win the competition for a great bridge.

Steinman continued to promote his Liberty Bridge, and himself, in his own way. The back cover of the same brochure that carried a sketch of the span contained a photograph of “the hands of Dr. Steinman at work on plans for the great span over the Narrows,” taken by the photographer Frank H. Bauer for a book of studies of “the hands of outstanding representatives of the various arts and professions.”

To accompany his hands using dividers and scale, Steinman took a quote from John Ruskin about building not for “present delight” but “forever” with stones that “will be held sacred because our hands have touched them,” by descendants who will say, “See, this our fathers did for us.” Steinman, who never showed any such admiration for his own father, evidently thought so much of the portrait of his hands that it formed the larger-than-life focus, surrounded by images of many of his already realized bridges, in a mural in an engineering-faculty lounge that he would donate to the University of Florida. Before he did that, however, Steinman thought there might be an opportunity for greater exposure of his engineer’s hands immortalized with dividers and scale over drawings of his dream bridge. In fact, he thought the image would form the perfect basis for the design of a postage stamp that was to be issued to commemorate the centennial of the American Society of Civil Engineers, in 1952. As late as 1957, a biographical sketch of Steinman described such a stamp as having been issued, but the stamp that was actually released in 1952 showed not an engineer’s hands but two bridges—a covered wooden bridge and a steel suspension bridge, which represented the century of engineering progress. Steinman must have been greatly disappointed that his stamp design was displaced in the final decision, but he may have been even more disappointed that it was Ammann’s George Washington Bridge that represented the century of progress. That the hands did appear as part of the design of an official first-day cover envelope may have been but small consolation.

Though it could be said that the George Washington Bridge was indeed the most significant structure to mark the century of progress since the founding of the American Society of Civil Engineers, an equally strong argument might have been made for not including it, or for employing the image of any one of several other bridges. After all, the George Washington was over twenty years old in 1952, making it more a symbol of eight decades, rather than a century, of progress. Had nothing of significance happened in bridge engineering, if that was indeed to be the metaphor for progress, since 1931? The light suspension bridges with sleek girder-stiffened decks that culminated in the Tacoma Narrows Bridge were not suitable candidates, for obvious reasons, but it could also be argued that the George Washington itself made engineers do what they did to those bridges. And what of the Golden Gate Bridge? Did it not represent progress beyond the George Washington? In short, the George Washington was a curious choice for the stamp. To understand why such a choice was made, however, requires a detour onto some routes of engineering progress that remain incompletely mapped to this day.

After the George Washington demonstrated that a stiffening truss was not absolutely necessary for the success of a suspension bridge, roadways supported by shallow stiffening girders were a natural development. As we have seen, the thin, ribbonlike profile provided by such designs was in keeping with the aesthetic goals of the time, and so Ammann, Steinman, Moisseiff, and their contemporaries were designing bridges with more and more slender profiles. Problems had begun to appear in bridges built as early as 1937. The Fykesesund Bridge in Norway, which had a 750-foot span suspended by rolled I-beams, and the Golden Gate Bridge, which had a conventional truss, oscillated in the wind, but it was the eight-hundred-foot span of Steinman’s own Thousand Islands Bridge over the St. Lawrence River, completed in 1938, and the 1,080-foot span of his Deer Isle Bridge in Maine, opened in 1939, along with Ammann’s Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, finished that same year, that drew the greatest attention to the problem, especially with the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows, which had essentially the same plate-girder construction as these.

Official first-day cover and U.S. postage stamp commemorating the centennial of engineering in America, incorporating, respectively, David Steinman’s hands working on plans for his not-to-be-realized Liberty Bridge and Othmar Ammann’s George Washington Bridge (photo credit 6.12)

Even before that disaster, Steinman and Ammann disagreed as to how best to retrofit their wavy bridges. Both of Steinman’s spans had been fitted with cable stays that were stretched between points on the tower near the roadway and the suspension cables. Thus installed, they were designed to stay, or steady, the main cables, and thereby check oscillations of them and the suspended roadway to an acceptable level. Ammann’s Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, on the other hand, had cables stretched between the tops of the towers and the roadway, which proponents believed would check the motion of the roadway directly. Within a month of the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which had been fitted with cable stays of yet another kind, Engineering News-Record published separate articles on the alternatives endorsed by Steinman and Ammann. Some time after these pieces appeared, Steinman brought the issue out in the open with a letter to the editor in which he challenged the implication that Ammann’s solution was found to be preferable to his own after “elaborate tests on a model conducted at Princeton University.” In fact, Steinman contended, his system of cable stays was not included in the tests, which were carried out for the Triborough Bridge Authority.

Terminology used for various means of attempting to suppress or reduce oscillations of suspension-bridge decks (photo credit 6.13)

Steinman concluded with nine reasons why he believed that the system adopted to steady the Bronx-Whitestone was “less efficient and effective than the system previously successfully applied on the Thousand Islands and Deer Isle bridges.” Among his reasons were factors relating to temperature changes, tower flexibility, side-span motion, torsional oscillations, and various technical details having to do with the nature of harmonic motion. The letter was followed, in the same issue, by a response from Ammann, who labeled as “valueless” Steinman’s “general unqualified assertions” that were “unsubstantiated” by analysis or experiment, and speculated that his criticism of the Bronx-Whitestone solution was motivated by Steinman’s “unsuccessful attempts to sell to the Triborough Bridge Authority his services and the use of his patented stay ropes which he endeavors to advertise as being superior to anything else.” In an attempt to refute some of the more technical of Steinman’s points relating to the dynamic behavior of bridges, Ammann revealed some of his own prejudices: “They involve such a complex problem that no one, not even the most learned physicist, could make a reliable analysis without experimental investigation. Dr. Steinman’s medley of arguments is pure guesswork expressed in impressive sounding scientific words.” Extensive studies involving models were required to resolve the matter, according to Ammann, and all installations called for “constant watching” to be sure they did not slip the way those on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge had done. The report of the committee of Ammann, von Kármán, and Woodruff on the collapse of that bridge gave no acknowledgment of the disagreement with Steinman over the form that stays should take. Steinman would later tell Engineering News-Record that the committee was composed of his “competitors” and that he was left out.

Politics and personalities can most easily enter where there are no incontrovertible solutions to technical problems, for the analytical difficulties can be horrendous and may rest upon assumptions that can always be called into question. Model tests, including the computer-based ones that are possible today, are also subject to criticism for their assumptions, and even when these are agreed upon, there can never be an exhaustive study of all possible conditions under which the bridge and its cable systems can operate. As for the “most learned physicist” that Ammann referred to, the analysis of such an individual, who might be a onetime academic like Steinman, remains a sore point among engineers to this day, for physicists tend to deal with such idealized systems that many bridge engineers fail to see the analyses as representing real bridges in real winds. Indeed, the problem epitomized by the Tacoma Narrows Bridge continues to stir controversy and debate among theoreticial engineers, practical engineers, and physicists alike. Whatever explanations of that collapse may be claimed or proposed remain open to the accusation that they are pure theory, for the simple reason that the very phenomenon they are intended to explain—namely, the actual oscillation and collapse of a full-scale suspension bridge across the Tacoma Narrows—is not available for verifying the theory. As for the retrofitted bridges of Steinman and Ammann, they have been made even more difficult to analyze with the added complications of their stays and stiffening systems. Though Steinman’s cable-stay solution was never admitted to be superior to Ammann’s, the latter’s Bronx-Whitestone Bridge was finally retrofitted with the stiffening trusses that essentially made the question of cable stays moot, and incidentally destroyed the bridge’s sleek lines.

Thus, when it came time to decide what bridge to put on a stamp commemorating a century of engineering, the choice between an Ammann reality and a Steinman dream also became a choice between the two camps of engineering approaches and responses to the Tacoma Narrows collapse. Furthermore, since the centennial of the American Society of Civil Engineers was being viewed as an occasion to define the centennial of the profession of engineering itself in America, that organization no doubt had desired to have a say in whose bridge should be pictured on “their” stamp. They would naturally turn to the work of Ammann, who after his break with Lindenthal had become the consummate organization man. He was more identified with bridges than anyone in New York, where the headquarters of the American Society of Civil Engineers was located, and his George Washington Bridge was the topic of an entire volume of the society’s Transactions. This must certainly have made a portrayal of that bridge preferable to a photograph of the hands of Steinman, who in his promotion of professional-engineering registration could actually have been seen as a threat to the oldest professional-engineering group in America. In 1953, the year after the stamp was issued, Ammann was made an Honorary Member of the society, thus achieving its coveted “Eminence Grade” of membership. Steinman, on the other hand, continued as an ordinary Member and was never recognized by the ASCE as having achieved “eminence in engineering.”

Among the reasons for Steinman’s lack of recognition by some segments of the engineering establishment must certainly have been his insistence on keeping the embarrassment of the Tacoma Narrows collapse more in the forefront of discussion than many engineers, such as Ammann, would have liked. The more it was talked about, the more attention it might call to the underlying influence of the George Washington Bridge, and to other spans built in the design climate of the 1930s. In the early-to-mid-1940s, Steinman’s desire to understand and articulate theories on the stability of suspension bridges, not to mention to build still larger ones, had brought plenty of attention to the most ignominious event in engineering history. But his interest in bridges became nicely complemented by his desire to pursue literary endeavors.

The book that Steinman wrote with Sara Ruth Watson, Bridges and Their Builders, had its origins when Steinman, the very visible engineer and promoter of his profession, was approached by the publisher G. P. Putnam’s Sons to write a book for the general reader on the history of bridges. After entering into a contract to do so, he had not been finding time to complete the ambitious project when, early in 1941, in Tampa, Florida, he met Watson, who taught at Fenn College in Cleveland, at a meeting of the American Toll Bridge Association, an organization Steinman had founded about a decade earlier. He was at the meeting to give his classic demonstration of bridge-deck instability, using (like von Kármán) a crude model and an electric fan, in his lecture, “Bridges and Aerodynamics,” and Watson was there to lecture on “Bridges in Poetry and Legend.”

When Steinman checked in at the meeting and met Watson, she “struck him as so charming” that he offered on the spot to turn the book contract over to her, according to his biographer Ratigan. However, Steinman and Watson agreed to write the book jointly, and it was immensely successful. The chapter on the Roeblings and the Brooklyn Bridge so captivated Irene Steinman that she suggested it be made into a movie. To his response, “I can’t write a movie,” Irene retorted, “David, you can do anything.” Since this was no doubt what the egoist Steinman wanted to hear, he set out first to write an entire book on the Roeblings and their bridge, seeing this as a necessary first step toward writing a screenplay. This new book project was to take five years to complete, during which time the movie notion seems to have been forgotten, but not other ones.

David Steinman, with simple model and electric fan, giving one of his many lectures on the aerodynamics of suspension bridges (photo credit 6.14)

In his early sixties, Steinman began to write poetry, some of it bordering on the devotional but much of it about bridges and bridge building, and the verse was eventually collected in several volumes, including I Built a Bridge and Songs of a Bridgebuilder. His poetry, like almost everything else he did, brought him recognition and awards, and he must have relished the attention that poetry societies gave an engineer who advocated the liberal education of his colleagues so that they might be more readily perceived also, as a group, to be citizens of culture and stature. In one of his poems, Steinman praised the life of the mind, as nurtured in college, where eager young students go

To spark the things of spirit that transcend

The shibboleths of ancestry and creed.

Such ideas must have consoled Steinman, who had repudiated his ethnic origins, even before he committed the thoughts to verse. His major prose-writing project of the time gave him, in addition, a surrogate family to research—the Roeblings and their Brooklyn Bridge. In the preface to his finished work, Steinman perpetuated the myth of his own life story, making himself a child of the bridge rather than of an immigrant family that lived in the squalor and hunger that surrounded it:

A boy grew up in the shadows of the Bridge. He loved to walk over the span and to explore its marvels. He was awed by its vastness, by the majesty of the towers and by the power of the cables; and he was fascinated by all the details of the construction—the anchorages and the cables, the trussing and the beams, the slip-joint at mid-span, the machinery of the cable railway, the stone work of the towers, and the magic of the radiating stays. When he returned from these pilgrimages he would recount to his playmates and to his elders the wonders he had seen. To him it was truly a “miracle bridge”; and, as he wondered how so marvelous a work could have been created, he was fired with the ambition to become a builder of suspension bridges. In a background of poverty, this far-flung ambition seemed beyond the boy’s reach; but the spirit of the Bridge, and later the story of its builders, had entered his heart—and the dream came true.

It was, Steinman continued, “in partial discharge of that debt of inspiration” that he undertook to write his book on the Roeblings, perhaps imagining them to be his professional progenitors. Gleaning information from “thousands of sources—original manuscripts, family letters, diaries, memoirs, notes, reports, periodicals, newspaper files, biographical works, scrapbooks, technical literature, records of historical societies, and correspondence,” Steinman cobbled together a gripping story, if in a ponderous book. The first edition of The Builders of the Bridge appeared in 1945, the same year that his longtime partner, Holton Robinson, died. Soon afterward, as if released from some constraint by the event, Steinman dropped his elder’s name from the firm’s, as he had omitted his parents from his biography. In 1948, the firm of D. B. Steinman received a contract for modernizing the Brooklyn Bridge by eliminating the trolley tracks so that it could carry six lanes of vehicular traffic. Steinman assumed, as a further labor of love, this responsibility to modify yet preserve the bridge that had inspired him as a youth.

A second edition of Steinman’s story of the Roeblings appeared in 1950, and it differed from the first mainly in its acknowledgment of a woman’s contribution to the Brooklyn Bridge enterprise. When Colonel Washington Roebling was struck with caisson disease in 1872, at the age of thirty-five, and became bedridden in a room overlooking the construction site of the Brooklyn Bridge, where three years earlier his father had suffered the accident that was to claim his life, control of the bridge project might have passed on to another engineer had it not been for Washington’s wife, Emily Warren Roebling. According to Steinman, writing elsewhere,

She grasped her husband’s ideas and she learned to speak the language of the engineers. She made daily visits to the bridge to inspect the work for the Colonel and to carry his instructions to the staff. She became his coworker and his principal assistant—his inspector, messenger, ambassador, and spokesman—his sole contact with the outside world.

Emily Roebling in fact functioned as assistant to the chief engineer. In a speech on the occasion of unveiling a tablet memorializing her, Steinman related how, upon the day the bridge was dedicated in 1883, Washington Roebling turned to Emily and told her, as a more generous Lindenthal might have told his assistant Ammann or Steinman upon the completion of the Hell Gate Bridge, “I want the world to know that you, too, are one of the Builders of the Bridge.” In an epilogue added to the second edition of his book, Steinman claimed as one of its accomplishments the attention that the book had directed “to the heroic contribution of a woman in the building of the Bridge.” He was, in part, atoning for the fact that he had forgotten her in giving his story of the builders of the bridge the subtitle The Story of John Roebling and His Son, and that he had seemed to dedicate it to the great men alone. Perhaps Steinman was coming to realize, no matter how subliminally, the debt he owed his own father and mother.


Steinman was able to devote time to literary pursuits in the 1940s in part because it had been a slow decade for new bridge building. This was caused not so much by the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows—that should only have affected the genre of suspension bridges, the way the fall of the Quebec had adversely affected only cantilever bridges a few decades earlier—as by World War II, which had focused so much attention on the destruction of existing bridges rather than on the erection of new ones, both literally and metaphorically. Writing after the war, Steinman noted that, “compared to the 1930s, when nearly every year witnessed a new bridge triumph, this slowing down of an accelerated tempo is an unusual situation.” This article in Engineering News-Recordpresented a series of tables giving such information as the world’s longest spans in various categories and recording “progress in bridge building as recorded in successive record span lengths.” Suspension bridges had dominated that progress for the previous century, with only rare anomalies, such as the Firth of Forth and Quebec steel cantilevers or the Hell Gate and Bayonne arches. Steinman, and others who had dreamed of designing and constructing even greater suspension bridges, must have worried, especially when they looked at the historic record, that in the wake of the Tacoma Narrows disaster their bridges of choice might become as unpopular as cantilevers had earlier in the century.

Steinman still wanted to build the record-setting Liberty Bridge, which was on his drawing board, on the cover of his firm’s brochure, and in the frontispiece of his book with Sara Watson. When Bridges and Their Builders was issued in a revised edition by Dover Publications in the mid-1950s, however, Liberty Bridge no longer occupied a position of honor; by then it was clear that his dream bridge was not to be in Steinman’s trophy case. In the meantime, he had begun to dream of other great spans, such as those crossing the straits of Mackinac, in Michigan, and Messina, in Italy, which awaited the design of exceptional bridges. Yet, if suspension structures were to make credible bridge proposals for such crossings, the matter of aerodynamic stability would have to be addressed. One approach was to test bridge models in wind tunnels, the way airplane-wing designs had then been studied for some years. Such an approach was, however, open to the limitations of experimental work generally, which meant that it gave only specific information on a specific test of a specific model of a specific design. A cleverly selected array of experiments could provide rather conclusive evidence about the phenomena and design under consideration, but there would always remain uncertainty as to whether the critical conditions had been tested or whether the model gave a true representation of the behavior of the full-scale bridge.

Theoretical studies, on the other hand, could encompass general conditions and thereby deal, in principle, with every conceivable combination of wind and resistance, for example. Whereas Ammann was able to dismiss Steinman’s “guesswork expressed in impressive sounding scientific words” during their letter exchange on cable stays, a more mathematically based description of the rigidity and aerodynamic stability of suspension bridges was more difficult to refute. Steinman, with his theoretical background and experience translating the mathematical Melan, was recognized to be capable of producing such a description, and he published it in the November 1943 issue of the Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers, exactly three years after the Tacoma Narrows collapse. He modeled with mathematical formulas of considerable generality the cables and stiffening girders of a suspension bridge, and proceeded to pursue their mathematical and physical implications for the engineering of such bridges. He was able to conclude from his formulas that by “increasing weight, depth, rigidity, and bracing,” or adding stays and devices of various kinds, much as John Roebling had written about and done in the previous century, engineers could make suspension bridges stable in the wind. However, Steinman also pointed out that “these methods resist or check the effects, but do not eliminate the cause.” He was also able to conclude from his theoretical analysis that modifications to the cross section of a bridge, such as “using open spaces in the floor or by adding horizontal fins or other wind-deflecting elements” could eliminate the cause of instability. He found it “more scientific to eliminate the cause than to build up the structure to resist the effect,” a point of view with which von Kármán would no doubt have concurred. The idea of cutting slots in a bridge deck to obviate its oscillation was, in fact, one of the recommendations that emanated from the board of engineers appointed to investigate the Tacoma Narrows collapse, and the rebuilt bridge across the Narrows did incorporate the idea.

Finally, Steinman concluded his Transactions article with a more personal request, that readers “share with him his faith and conviction that suspension bridges of all span lengths can be designed economically to any desired degree of rigidity and with assured aerodynamic stability.” Not surprisingly, given the interest in the subject in the wake of the Tacoma Narrows collapse, Steinman’s work attracted discussions that occupied more pages than did his paper, as did his responses to these discussions. In general, however, the reactions of readers, especially to his conclusions, were favorable.

In the 1950s, after a decade in which literary and historical pursuits competed for his time as a theoretician and a designer, Steinman rededicated himself with rejuvenated interest to promoting bold new suspension bridges. In part because of theoretical work like his on aerodynamic stability—which provided guidance to wind-tunnel tests of new deck designs, which in turn confirmed theoretical predictions—there was renewed interest and confidence worldwide in building long-span suspension bridges. One project that had been shelved during the 1940s was the crossing of the Straits of Mackinac, which had so separated the Upper from the Lower Peninsula of Michigan that the Upper Peninsula was for all practical and economic purposes more a part of Wisconsin than of Michigan. Thousands of cars would wait sometimes almost a full day to get ferry service across the straits during summer-vacation time. At least as far back as 1888, when Cornelius Vanderbilt was attending a directors’ meeting at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island and said, “What this area needs is a bridge across the Straits,” an obvious advantage had been seen in such a structure. In one of his later poems, “The Bridge at Mackinac,” Steinman would not only set the scene but also use rhyme to clarify the pronunciation of the place name. Whereas the island’s name is pronounced as it is spelled, this is not so for the waters in which it stands:

In the land of Hiawatha,

Where the white man gazed with awe

At a paradise divided

By the straits of Mackinac—

Regardless, however, of how the place names were pronounced, it had not been until the 1930s that legislation encouraged the serious consideration of a bridge across the straits. Even then, although the technological climate was right, the financial promise of a self-supporting toll bridge for seasonal traffic in the upper Midwest was not so bright as it was in the traffic-growth areas on the East and West Coasts.

By 1950, the sight of thousands of cars waiting for ferries had renewed interest in a bridge. An Inter-Peninsula Communications Commission appointed by Governor G. Mennen Williams promoted a resurrection, with an influential membership, of the Bridge Authority that had been abolished during the war. Though there was some question as to whether the Authority could actually finance or build a bridge, they could certainly gather technical and financial information. The engineering questions were to be addressed first by a board of three consulting engineers, to be recommended by Dean Ivan C. Crawford of the University of Michigan.

A major suspension span would likely be among the bridges of choice for the Mackinac crossing, and so the appointment of a credible consulting board was saddled with the decade-old legacy of the Tacoma Narrows disaster. Whereas Ammann had been a member of the expert committee that reported on that accident, Steinman had subsequently been a much more visible theorist as to how such an event could have happened and be prevented in future bridge designs. The naming of consulting engineers was further complicated by the debate that had ensued between Ammann and Steinman as to how to deal with their own flexible bridges. In the end, Dean Crawford extricated himself from the dilemma by recommending both Ammann and Steinman for appointment as consulting engineers for the project, along with Glenn Woodruff, the San Francisco engineer who had sat on the Tacoma Narrows investigatory panel with Ammann and with the aerodynamicist von Kármán.

The board of engineers reported in January 1951, after six months of study, that a “perfectly safe suspension bridge” could be built across the straits, for a cost of approximately $75 million. An independent report on traffic and financing matters supported the economic feasibility of such a project. A final decision was delayed for various reasons, including: questions of steel availability during the Korean War; suggestions that there were unsuitable foundation conditions beneath the straits; and a stipulation that none of the preliminary consulting engineers could be picked for the actual construction project. This last was a frustrating obstacle, for Ammann and Steinman were the two most logical builders. In the end, the Michigan Legislature granted the Bridge Authority the right to engage the engineer of its choice.

In the meantime, the federal Advisory Board on the Investigation of Suspension Bridges, which had been appointed by the commissioner of public roads in 1942 to coordinate research relevant to suspension-bridge design, especially with regard to aerodynamic stability, had issued its preliminary report of tentative findings, which was published in 1952 by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The authors of the 1941 failure report—Ammann, von Kármán, and Woodruff—were members of the Advisory Board, but the “competitor” Steinman was not. Steinman’s articles were, however, prominently referenced in the new report. The behavior of some particular bridges, including the Bronx-Whitestone, was discussed, and an unpublished report by Ammann to the Triborough Bridge Authority was quoted as admitting that the effect of the stay cables had “not been sufficient to prevent nor apparently reduce the exceptional oscillations of larger amplitude.” Such disappointing behavior had led to the addition of the present stiffening truss to the bridge, and it gave Steinman a victory of sorts.

Financing for a Mackinac Bridge was not easy to come by, and the Michigan Bridge Authority had no funds to engage an engineer to produce a design. Only Steinman would agree to undertake the job on speculation. Thus, in January 1953, he was selected as designing engineer of the Mackinac Bridge; Woodruff was later named as his associate. Preliminary plans and estimates were ready within two months, and construction contracts were negotiated, as required, before the bonds could be issued in late 1953. Steinman’s design incorporated features endorsed by the Advisory Board, including space between the deep stiffening trusses and the outer edge of the roadway. This was to raise the critical wind velocity, at which oscillations of the deck could start, from the forty-two miles per hour that had become associated with the failed Tacoma Narrows Bridge to a calculated value of 642 miles per hour. An additional feature—namely, an open-grid roadway under the two center traffic lanes—raised the critical wind velocity to “infinity.”

Steinman’s design, when drawn to scale, showed the Mackinac Straits Bridge to be larger than the Golden Gate. Though the older structure still retained the record for the longest suspended span between towers, the Mackinac Bridge was actually longer in total suspended span, by almost a thousand feet. When measured from the end of one anchorage to the end of the other, the suspension bridge itself was over eighty-six hundred feet long, and thus surpassed by over two thousand feet the overall length of any suspension bridge extant. Steinman had, in a way, gotten to build the largest suspension bridge on earth. When he wrote, in collaboration with Michigan newspaperman John T. Nevill, the story of the design and construction of the enormous structure, the book was entitled Miracle Bridge at Mackinac. At least in his own mind, Steinman was no doubt likening his crowning achievement to the now dwarfed Brooklyn Bridge of his youth. In another work, the “official picture history” of the new bridge, Steinman wrote of the structure and himself:

The Mackinac Bridge is my crowning achievement—the consummation of a lifetime dedicated to my chosen profession of bridge engineering. As far back as 1893, when I was a newsboy selling papers near the Brooklyn Bridge, I told the other newsboys that someday I was going to build bridges like the famous structure that towered majestically above us. They laughed at me. Now I can point to 400 bridges I have built around the world, and to my masterwork—the Mackinac Bridge—the greatest of all. The realization, one after another, of dreams that seemed hopeless leaves me reverent and humble.

The Mackinac Bridge (photo credit 6.15)

Though Steinman may have had a curious way of expressing his humility, he was no doubt humbled at this time, for it was also clear that the Mackinac Bridge would have to be his “Liberty Bridge,” because the New York Narrows project had in the meantime been given to Ammann by Robert Moses, who was in effect his own banker.

There were still other bridge prizes to be pursued, of course, and Steinman had been pursuing them. Yet, even if he had not been growing old, and even if he had not always acknowledged the essential role of assistants in helping him reach his goals, including lesser ones than his “crowning achievement,” Steinman the chief engineer knew that he could not have succeeded in his quests without a talented and broad-based staff. As Ammann had acknowledged his dependence upon his assistants, so did Steinman at the conclusion of the Mackinac project. Among those who were central to the success of the enterprise were R. M. Boynton, C. H. Gronquist, and J. London. Boynton, a 1920 civil-engineering graduate of the University of Maine, had been with Steinman since 1928 and was responsible for the substructure of the bridge. Carl Gronquist, who received B.S., M.S., and C.E. degrees from Rutgers University, joined Steinman after receiving the master’s degree in 1927, and was in charge of the superstructure. London, who received both his B.S. and his C.E. degree from the City College of New York in the early 1920s, had joined Steinman in 1922 and had responsibility for the approaches, lighting, and equipment associated with the Mackinac Bridge. Together, they represented a new generation of engineer, one that came out of the many newer American public schools of engineering that in the early twentieth century overshadowed the once dominant position of the European tradition and private schools like Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

In 1960, Steinman added the names of three partners to his firm’s name. Whereas he had practiced as D. B. Steinman since the death of Holton Robinson, now the consulting firm would be known as Steinman, Boynton, Gronquist & London. The new firm needed a new brochure, of course, and in it a brief background on the organization, with no false modesty, stated its credentials: “Since 1921, the members of the firm have been designers or consultants on over 400 bridges on five continents, many of them being among the most renowned bridges in the world.” The “record cost” of the Mackinac Bridge, almost $100 million, was described as more than that of the George Washington and Golden Gate bridges combined. This “artistically and scientifically … outstanding” structure, the “longest suspension bridge in the world,” was further described in more personal terms: “Here is Dr. Steinman’s and his firm’s crowning achievement. It represents the attainment of a new goal of perfect aerodynamic stability, never before attained or even approximated in any prior suspension bridge design.”

Not only past achievements were pictured in the consulting firm’s brochure. In a foreword signed by Steinman, he wrote of “the great spans of tomorrow,” and it was one of these especially that had recaptured his imagination. As early as 1950, the Italian Steel Institute had retained Steinman to prepare plans for a crossing of the two-mile-wide Strait of Messina, between Sicily and the Italian mainland. The legendary passage through which Ulysses had to sail between Scylla and Charybdis, the strait is the site of the occasional mirage known as the fata morgana. How the poet Steinman must have longed for the commission, and the occasion to commemorate its achievement in verse. There was no time for poetry when courting engineering commissions, however, and the bridge sketched in the brochure was described as having a record five-thousand-foot main span, stiffened against railroad traffic, aerodynamic forces, and earthquakes. According to the consulting firm’s brochure, commencement of construction awaited only the financing of the $150 million cost.

The Strait of Messina bridge design proposed by David Steinman (photo credit 6.16)

Perhaps it was the adrenaline that the Mackinac commission released that caused Steinman to produce a new outpouring of articles on bridges and aerodynamics in the early-to-mid-1950s, but it was the bridge across the Strait of Messina that became his new sought-after achievement. Steinman knew that, no matter how much he spoke of the total suspended span or the eighty-three hundred feet between abutments or the five-mile overall length of the roadway of the Mackinac Bridge, the main suspended span was the technological achievement by which records were really kept, and the Mackinac’s was only thirty-eight hundred feet long, a full four hundred feet less than that of the Golden Gate, and less still than that of Ammann’s Verrazano-Narrows Bridge would be. If Steinman really wanted to hold the record, he had to be identified with a bridge like the one he had proposed across the Strait of Messina.

Among the articles Steinman had written, more than incidentally promoting his new dream bridge, was one entitled “Suspension Bridges: The Aerodynamic Problem and Its Solution.” This appeared in 1954 in American Scientist, the journal of Sigma Xi, the research honor society that had been founded early in the century as a scientific counterpart to Phi Beta Kappa. In this comprehensive piece, renderings of the Mackinac and Strait of Messina bridges, drawn from the same perspective, appear on facing pages. There is a strong physical resemblance between the two bridges’ towers, and the clear implication had to be, if the one, why not the other. There were certainly no technical impediments in Steinman’s mind, as his article clearly argued. He showed how he had physically checked with stays the aerodynamic motion of his Deer Isle Bridge, without having to resort to a retrofitted truss, and he pointed out how he had solved the mathematical problem of understanding what it took to control aerodynamic motion in bridges on the drawing board. Forty years after its appearance, the paper is remembered by engineers and scientists alike as having been a definitive resolution of the problem of suspension-bridge oscillations, both practically and theoretically, in spite of a renewed interest in 1990 in revisiting and reanalyzing the Tacoma Narrows collapse on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary. Another article by Steinman, a historical perspective on bridges generally but with a special emphasis on suspension bridges and the aerodynamic problem, had appeared in Scientific American. It concluded with a discussion of bridges of the future, of which the Strait of Messina span was the clear successor to the one across the Straits of Mackinac.


Perhaps those whose dreams of bridges go to the lengths that Steinman’s did cannot ever stop dreaming of bettering themselves. The Messina bridge project was to be left on Steinman’s drawing board, however, when he died in 1960. He had become ill barely six months after establishing the partnership that would associate his name with projects well beyond his death. His obituary in The New York Times remembered him as the designer of the Henry Hudson Bridge, the work he had effectively completed as a student at Columbia, as well as of “more than 400 others spanning rivers and harbors in many parts of the world.” An editorial in that paper called his “greatest success” the bridge in Michigan that had come to be recognized as the “world’s longest suspension bridge” and to be called affectionately “Big Mack.” Ironically, the hometown paper incorrectly spoke of Steinman as having been “born on the Lower East Side four years before Brooklyn Bridge was opened on May 24, 1883,” which would have made his year of birth the same as Ammann’s. The paper did not misspeak, however, when it referred to Steinman’s belief that a bridge could be “a poem stretched across a river” and that “bridges are an index to civilization.” Though the editorial recognized Steinman to have been a poet who wrote in steel, it by no means remembered him only as a dreamer: “He helped in the negotiations and the rivalries that must proceed—sometimes it seems endlessly—before a great bridge is built.” It should not diminish Steinman’s accomplishments to say that this prosaic praise might also have been written of any of his few significant rivals and peers.

But if the popular press remembered Steinman affectionately, only allowing that “rivalries” were a part of bridge building, the engineering press did not recall him so warmly. Civil Engineering, the magazine of the American Society of Civil Engineers, treated his death as but another bit of society news, albeit with a picture of an aged Steinman holding a drawing of his last dream, the Messina Strait bridge. He was acknowledged to be “regarded as [sic] one of the great engineers of the twentieth century,” but the reserved tone of the notice of the death of the “famous bridge builder,” who had been a member of the society for half a century, only hinted at the legacy Steinman had left behind in the profession he so loved. Unlike Ammann, who had received the society’s highest formal recognition, Steinman seems to have been thought of as just another dues-paying member, albeit one of some notable accomplishment who had been active for fifty years. In fact, he had been the promoter of what was seen as a competing organization, the National Society of Professional Engineers. Given his aspirations toward honors and awards, he may have been disappointed at not being made an honorary member, or at least a fellow, of the civil-engineering society. He would be further shunned by having not so much as an abstract of a memoir of him published in the society’s Transactions. But such mean-spiritedness had been foreshadowed.

A year before he died, Engineering News-Record had profiled Steinman in the same “Men and Jobs” series in which its editors had profiled Ammann a year earlier. The contrast of the two treatments is striking. Ammann’s was titled “An Artist in Steel Design,” and it portrayed the “unobtrusive looking man” as one who disliked attention and preferred to stay at home rather than go to parties that served “no particular purpose.” Instead of being a loner, however, he was a firm “believer in the conference table and in amalgamation of talents to do a job.” When asked by the interviewer to describe the “typical” engineer’s personality, Ammann replied:

We may lack glamor and sparkle. We might even be considered dull by many people, but I don’t believe it. I think that the fact that we are dealing so intensely with concepts outside the layman’s ken makes us often not understood by them.

This is actually the engineer’s number one problem today. He must learn somehow to communicate more easily—both with his colleagues and with the public. Most of us [engineers], when we have something to say, will qualify our statement to death until we’re bogged down and the point is lost to all but those who have the patience to dig to see what we really mean. Even then, one is not often sure.

Ammann suggested teaching more communication skills to student engineers as a way of correcting the problem, but neither he nor the editor who was interviewing him seemed to want to pursue directly what role fundamental traits of personality may have to do with it all. Rather, the interview continued with a digression into Ammann’s keen sense of office detail, which was reported to be exemplified by his knowing “most of his employees by name and personality,” and by the fact that he “scanned carefully” everything that left the office.

Among the things reported to ruffle Ammann’s feathers was any expression of admiration for the “rugged individualist,” because “a man like that is nothing but an egotist.” Ammann believed that “People are meant to work together. Nobody wants to see a one-man show.” There can be little doubt that Ammann’s rival, the rugged individualist and egotist David Steinman, was a target of these remarks. It was Steinman, more than Ammann, who had reached out to and communicated with the public with an effective glamour and sparkle.

Steinman’s profile, perhaps at his instigation and after an appeal for equal time, appeared under the title of the magazine’s cover story, “What Measure for This Man?” He was described as having had a full life, “full of disappointments and frustrations as well as of recognition and financial rewards.” By his own admission, his great disappointment was being denied “the focus of my life ambition,” the Liberty Bridge he had spent thirty years promoting. Engineering News-Record, which had been so much an interpreter of the profession, surmised, moreover, that the “loss of affection among contemporaries may be the greatest of his sacrifices,” for he was a man who wanted “very much to make friends” but whose personality had not been one “to take or leave.”

To its own rhetorical question of what Steinman’s life added up to, the magazine responded with more questions. Would it be “the mighty Mackinac Bridge”; the book about the Roeblings, The Builders of the Bridge; the book for juveniles, Famous Bridges of the World; the poems; the National Society of Professional Engineers, which he founded; his tireless efforts for passage of registration laws for engineers; or his later “speech-making campaign when he barnstormed the country” explaining the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which he believed he could have saved? It was this last effort especially that did “not endear him to his contemporaries who had a part in the investigation” of the failure that was so embarrassing to the profession.

According to Steinman, “All my competitors were on a committee to investigate the collapse and I was scrupulously left out.” He also allowed that “channels of information” were closed to him, as were “channels of publication,” but the anonymous reporter did not feel the engineer said these things with bitterness, only “somewhat sadly.” Indeed, one of Steinman’s distinguishing traits may have been his willingness to discuss openly engineering embarrassments for the good of the entire profession. In 1929, for example, when heat-treated wire was showing signs of weakness in the cables of his Mount Hope Bridge in Rhode Island and the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, both then under construction, the cables were dismantled and replaced with conventional cold-drawn wire. Rather than helping the incidents to be forgotten, as some thought human nature and professional pride might dictate, Steinman “distinguished himself by helping to record fully and promptly the findings of this unfortunate experience.”

But it was the strictly personal qualities of the man, more separated from professional practice than issues of the cables or instabilities of bridges, that had finally to be addressed in a profile. In the year since Ammann had blasted the rugged individualist in the same department of Engineering News-Record, Steinman had added the names of other engineers to his own, and his firm was running easily without “The Doctor,” whose identity had sometimes seemed to be one with it. His relationship to his employees was nonetheless reported to be perhaps “an outstanding facet” of his personality: “They call him generous, thoughtful, receptive, ethical, quixotic, brilliant, warm, human, a team man and character-builder.” He, for his part, considered all of them his “brother engineers.”

Steinman’s methods of doing business were perhaps affected by his “quixotic” quality. He admitted to having “put off earnings to fight causes,” and thus it was not surprising that the practice “barely broke even most years until the Fifties,” when the Mackinac Bridge project was realized. His methods of “promoting professional engagements” were considered one likely legacy of his career, for “he would do considerable engineering on a proposed bridge in hopes of some day getting to design it in detail and see it built.” His Liberty Bridge was among a list of forty other such proposed bridges. During the 1920s, Steinman had traveled everywhere around the country looking for prospective sites for toll bridges to design, but he later speculated on why he found it difficult to get very far with state highway departments: “I didn’t know and don’t want to know the political ropes.”

Though Steinman may not have known or even wanted to know the politics of bridge building, he did seem to have an instinct for the politics of self-promotion. Perhaps the gentle-looking man who was, like so many builders of large bridges, slight in physical stature, worked hard at promoting his own accomplishments because he had repudiated the more modest but nevertheless essential ones of his parents. Or perhaps he felt that competing for publicity and recognition of a less tangible kind was not quite the same as fighting tooth and nail for a bridge commission. Whatever his motivation, however, Steinman was a notorious self-promoter, leading at least one reporter to state that “perhaps his greatest contribution will some day be judged to be his public relations effort.”

Steinman seemed to seek and need the limelight as a flower does the sunlight, and no one knew this more objectively than the press: “Editorial offices for years have been on the receiving end of the Steinman mail—poems, itineraries, news releases, pictures.” Although little of the material was usable to editors, it did call constant attention to the profession of engineering. It was estimated that no other engineer since Herbert Hoover or Charles Kettering, the crusty inventor of the electric starter for automobiles, had done more in his time to make engineering known to the public, and in Steinman’s case, “he identified himself, indeed integrated himself, with his profession so thoroughly that it would be difficult to say what effort he puts forth for self and which for his profession.” Though this perhaps self-generated confusion of himself with engineering did not win the approval of some of Steinman’s contemporary engineers, such as Ammann, it was in the final analysis a true measure of the man.

When Steinman died, a little more than a year after the assessment of him appeared in Engineering News-Record, the journal editorialized on “Dave Steinman” with the same ambivalence, noting that, “unfortunately, his great accomplishments were sometimes clouded by his personality, which frequently made him the center of controversy.” He was likened in ego and outspokenness to Frank Lloyd Wright, and was said to have done for engineering in his lifetime what Wright did for architecture in his. The question of Steinman’s “real contribution” still irked the editors, however. They allowed that he “personified civil engineering” and that he was a “nearly unique” interpreter of his profession to the public, leaving behind too few to fill this important role, but in the end they would not grant him the accolade he no doubt would have most wanted to hear. Not one of his bridges was named in the editorial, not even the great Mackinac or his dream Liberty or his proposed Messina Strait. Instead, the magazine whose predecessor forty-seven years earlier had run a picture of Steinman’s first bridge, the modest timber cantilever he built with a troop of Boy Scouts in Idaho, grouped all of his structural achievements anonymously into a single sentence that at the same time negated them: “His bridges, which will remain as great monuments to him, would probably have been designed by others if he had not come along.”

David Steinman the self-promoter, shown here posing among the floor-stay and suspender cables of the Brooklyn Bridge (photo credit 6.17)

Though this kick at the casket might be in one sense true, it diminishes more the editor’s credibility as a student of engineering than the greatness of Steinman’s accomplishments. No doubt, had Steinman and his colleagues not designed and built the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan, the Deer Isle Bridge in Maine, the St. Johns Bridge in Oregon, the Carquinez Straits Bridge in California, the Florianópolis Bridge in Brazil, or even the timber cantilever in Idaho, those places might have had their bridges sooner or later, by others if Steinman had not come along. But can anyone, after knowing how the personality of the engineer informs his designs, believe that any of Steinman’s bridges would be quite the same span if designed by another? The Liberty Bridge remained a paper bridge, because the Verrazano-Narrows was built—clearly an Ammann bridge, rooted in the same aesthetic as his George Washington and Bronx-Whitestone bridges. Had Ammann not come along and filled the role of chief bridge engineer for the fledgling Port Authority, who knows what the George Washington Bridge and all its descendants would look like today? There is little doubt that bridges would stand where they do now, but they would be different bridges, embodying the personal style and ideas of whoever’s bridges they were, and they would affect our present sense of bridgeness differently than do those that actually exist. Eads, Cooper, Lindenthal, Ammann, and Steinman each built his own kind of bridge in his own time, and each of them has left a legacy that has influenced the bridges and bridge builders that have followed. This is, and will always be, the essence of the endeavor.

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