Saturday, February 27, 2010

Thomas Pope and the First Brooklyn Bridge

Thomas Pope was a carpenter, a landscape architect, a bridge designer, and a poet.  In 1811, he published the first book ever written in the United States on bridge building entitled, A Treatise on Bridge Architecture in Which the Superior Advantages of the Flying Pendent Lever Bridge Are Fully Proved.  You can find the entire book online at Google Books.

Pope's book gives a detailed history of many bridges around the world and throughout history.  His illustrations are certainly part of the fun of the book.  I have provided a few of them below.  You can see more in the online book.

The most interesting part of the whole book is Pope's proposal to build what can only be seen as a futuristic vision of a cantilever bridge to span the East River between New York and Brooklyn; the first design of a Brooklyn Bridge.

Pope proposed a wooden structure over 1800 feet long and with a free height at its center of over 260 feet!  Pope anticipated by fifty years that bridges that were cantilevered would be built as self-supporting structures from each shore until they connected in the center.  The fact that his bridge design was unbuildable because it was made of wood, a material not strong enough for the span, does not detract from many of his insights.  The clean simplicity of his cantilevered arc design would not be seen for almost 200 years.

Pope's book is filled with bridge history, data, and designs, but these are also accompanied by long stanzas of poetry.  The illustration above contains a few of the opening lines of a poem about his proposed bridge.  They read (and the verse continues):

Let the broad arc of the spacious HUDSON stride,
And span COLUMBIA'S rivers far more wide;
Convince the world AMERICA begins
To foster arts, the ancient work of kings.
Stupendous plan! Which none before e'er found,
That half an arc should stand upon the ground,
Without support while building, or a rest;
This caus'd the theorist's rage and sceptic's jest.
Like half a rainbow rising on one shore,
While its twin partner spans the semi o'er,
And makes a perfect whole, that need not part,
Till time has furnish'd us a nobler art.

[Caps in original]

Pope's bridge was never built.  But the idea of a bridge to span the East River would not die.  Finally, the Brooklyn Bridge, an icon of American architecture, was completed on May 24, 1883.  It remains one of the most beautiful bridges in the world.  But the dream started with Thomas Pope.  And some dreams just will not die.

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