Brain Pickings

The Great Bridge: An Essential History of the Brooklyn Bridge

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What wire-walkers and medical mysteries have to do with the world’s deepest pit and the secret female engineer behind an architectural icon.

On the afternoon of August 24, 1876, an announcement was made in the Brooklyn Eagle that a man would attempt to cross the Brooklyn Bridge. The next day, thousands of people lined the river on the Manhattan and Brooklyn waterfronts to see the feat. Built over the past six years, the massive anchors of the bridge were the tallest structures in the city, twin cathedrals on the river. Between them was a negative space of huge potential, the largest suspension bridge in the world. For the moment, however, the bridge was nothing but a single string cable, impossibly thin and hard to see, twisting in the wind.

At half past one, E.F. Farrington, the sixty-year-old Master Mechanic of the massive architectural project, stepped onto a boatswain’s chair — essentially a two-foot plank of wood — and swung out over the river. Below, a traffic-jam of sailboats and ferries had stopped to watch as a man seemingly flew above them, reaching the other side in seven minutes to a huge shout from the Brooklyn side. The first crossing of the Brooklyn Bridge had been achieved.

The Great Bridge (public library), David McCullough’s phenomenal 1972 history of a bridge that has been an icon of the city for nearly 130 years, has been reissued this year for its 40th anniversary. The story that McCullough tells is a thrilling tale of engineering genius, bureaucratic hang-ups, medical breakthroughs, and an architectural ambition that transformed New York forever.

On August 24, 1876, E.F. Farrington, Master Mechanic of the Brooklyn Bridge, made the first crossing across the East River on a wire.

Like the vision of a man zip-lining across the East River, The Great Bridge tells many little-known facts about the bridge, including the daily toil of “caisson disease” — better known today as the bends — on the bridge workers. It was an illness that stupefied medical professionals and struck down the engineer of the bridge itself, Washington Roebling, who had taken over the project after the death of his father, J.A. Roebling.

After the single-wire crossing, bridge-workers, many of whom were former sailors, would start to attach the suspension cables. (Brooklyn Museum)

There were two phases of work for those who toiled on the bridge: the six-year project to dig out the bases for the two towers, and the stringing of the cables, which took nearly as long. The first workers were expected to work in shifts of five or six hours down in the “caisson,” the massive pit that anchored the structure to the earth. There was no deeper pit in the world, and the men who went down into it would travel through several airlocks.

Inside the caisson everything wore an unreal, weird appearance….With the flaming lights, the deep shadows, the confusing noise of hammers, drills, and chains, the half-naked forms flitting about, with here and there a Sisyphus rolling his stone, one might, if of a poetic temperament, have a realizing sense of Dante’s inferno.

More than two hundred workers would descend into the caisson each day, and newspaper reporters would relate their stories of the slimy, hot, airless working conditions.

As the depth increased, so did the danger — and so did the pay. A man working in the pit could make in hours what a regular laborer might make in a month. But soon men started to come out of the hole dizzy and bleeding, and a doctor was called to investigate the illness that seemed to strike down everyone who went down below. The doctor then realized that the sickness only struck men who scrambled to get out of the hellish hole, rather than those who gradually came out over the course of an hour or so. It was one of the first diagnoses of the bends in human history.

A view of Brooklyn from the bridge, c. 1876 (Brooklyn Museum)

One of those to become very sick from the bends was chief engineer Washington Roebling, who had taken over the project when his father died. Halfway through the construction, Roebling became confined to his home in Brooklyn Heights, where he could watch the progress from a second-floor window. His wife, Emily, became the public face of the project. She would meet with his engineers, suppliers, and business partners in the parlor of their house, learning complex matters of physics about the strength of cable and the catenary curves necessary for a successful suspension.

After chief engineer became sick due to the bends while working on the Bridge, Emily Roebling would take over many of her husband's duties, teaching herself the essentials of physics, architecture, and engineering. (Brooklyn Museum)

Emily Roebling would also travel to the site to walk the temporary footbridge that became a dangerous but popular attraction for New Yorkers: “Safe for only 25 men at one time,” a sign read at the entrance. “Do not walk close together nor run, jump, or trot. Break step!”

The temporary footbridge that allowed workers to access the cable was also a popular tourist attraction. (Nationaal Archief)

When the bridge opened in 1883, it was called the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” and rightly so. No project had combined such expertise in excavation, suspension, and architectural aesthetics in one of the busiest metropolises in the world. Much like New York Diaries and The Greatest Grid, The Great Bridge is a reminder that any enduring symbol is constructed from a constellation of stories.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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The Science of Waiting and the Art of Delay

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Exploring the intersection of time and decision-making to shine a light on what it means to be human.

“We never live; we are always in the expectation of living,” Voltaire famously lamented. This tension between anticipation and impatience, indeed, seems central to the human condition. In Wait: The Art and Science of Delay (public library), former investment banker turned writer and law educator Frank Partnoy shines a spotlight on it by bringing together four previously examined grand questions — what is time, how we decide, why we procrastinate, and what it means to be human — through hundreds of scientific studies and interviews with prominent thinkers across psychology, behavioral economics, philosophy, social science, anthropology, and more. What emerges is an important, if counterintuitive, perspective on delay in a culture obsessed with efficiency, speediness, and productivity that bleeds into the hasty and the rash.

Partnoy observes:

For centuries, leading thinkers …. have told us not to jump to firm conclusions about the unknown. Yet today we jump faster and more frequently to firm conclusions. We like to believe there is wisdom in our snap decisions, and sometimes there is. But true wisdom and judgment come from understanding our limitations when it comes to thinking about the future. This is why it is so important for us to think about the relevant time period of our decisions and then ask what is the maximum amount of time we can take within that period to observe and process information about possible outcomes. Asking questions about timing is crucial, even if we cannot arrive at an answer as specific as ’42.’

[ … ]

Thinking about the role of delay is a profound and fundamental part of being human. Questions about delay are existential: the amount of time we take to reflect on decisions will define who we are. Is our mission simply to be another animal, responding to whatever stimulations we encounter? Or are we here for something more?

Our ability to think about delay is a central part of the human condition. It is a gift, a tool we can use to examine our lives. Life might be a race against time, but it is enriched when we rise above our instincts and stop the clock to process and understand what we are doing and why. A wise decision requires reflection, and reflection requires pause. The converse of Socrates’s famous admonition is that the examined life just might be worth living.

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Creative Legend George Lois on Ideas as the Product of Discovery, Not Creation

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How to cultivate the mental medley that sparks the alchemy of ideas.

In celebrating the greatest living graphic designer’s 83rd birthday on Tuesday, I somehow forgot that Milton Glaser shares his birthday with another creative world icon, two years his junior — legendary designer, author, and contrarian George Lois, often regarded as the greatest art director of all time and called, much to his disgruntlement, “the original Mad Man.” To celebrate his 81st birthday, here’s a wonderful short film by On Creativity, in which Lois reflects on the combinatorial nature of creativity and echoes insights we’ve already heard from other great creators — the power of cultivating a personal microculture, the idea that to invent is to choose, the importance of “being-in-the-world-ness,” the notion that to create is to discover and connect rather than “invent” out of thin air.

I don’t think I create anything. I’m really serious — I discover the ideas.

[…]

If you understand how to think… If you have a background of graphic art, and you are a sports fan, and you’re literate, and you’re interested in politics, and you love opera, and ballet’s not bad either, and if you understand people… and you understand language, and you understand that product, and you understand the competitive products… and you put that all together in about ten minutes — the idea’s there.

Lois’s new book, Damn Good Advice (For People with Talent!): How To Unleash Your Creative Potential by America’s Master Communicator, George Lois, came out earlier this year and is precisely the kind of no-bullshit, feather-ruffling gem you’d expect from the beloved curmudgeon.

Swiss-Miss

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