Engineer of the Week No.83: Emily Roebling (nee Warren) (23rd September 1843 - 28th February 1903)
Today we remember one of the USA’s most renowned women engineers, Emily Roebling, for her role in building the Brooklyn Bridge.
Emily Warren Roebling, who completed the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, was another of those indomitable women who was an “engineer-by-marriage”. Although the youngest in a large New York family she was lucky enough to get a good school education before meeting her husband during the American Civil War. She married engineer Washington Roebling in 1865, just before his father John Roebling started work on the Brooklyn Bridge design, and they were sent off to Europe for Washington to learn about caissons (cofferdams) which its construction would need. When they returned to the USA in 1867 Emily already had a new baby but they were thrown straight into work on the bridge as Washington’s father had died following an accident at the construction site. In 1870, Washington was struck down with decompression sickness following an accident in the caissons protecting the foundations of the new bridge. Although he survived, he was further incapacitated by a series of strokes and was confined to bed and barely able to communicate.
Fortunately for the project, Emily’s involvement from the beginning meant that, despite having no formal engineering training, she was very well versed in the details of bridge construction, such as the strength of materials, stress analysis, cable construction, and even the necessary calculations. She took over the day-to-day running of the project, communicating the day’s instructions to the supervisors on site, based on her discussions with her husband. She also had to deal with the politicians and even other engineering companies which, by 1882, were pressing to get her husband’s contract as chief engineer, on the grounds of his incapacity. Her constant presence, evident knowledge and authoritative speeches to those in power meant that many assumed she was in fact the bridge’s designer. Although she herself never claimed to be an engineer, let alone ‘The Bridge’s Engineer’, others certainly respected her as one, with E. F. Farrington, the chief wire engineer on site, referring to her publicly as “the first female field engineer”.
At the opening of the bridge in 1883, she was the first person to cross the bridge, where her contribution to its completion is marked with a plaque. The remainder of her life, apart from the care of her husband and ailing son, remained in the public sphere. She took a law qualification at New York University, where she won a prize for her article entitled “A Wife’s Disabilities.”. Emily was very involved in a number of women’s organisations as well as writing and campaigning for women’s rights and can be seen as having been amongst those women who laid the ground for the coming campaign for women’s suffrage. She died in 1903.