Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

02 JULY, 2012

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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29 JUNE, 2012

Powershift: Alvin Toffler on the Age of Post-Fact Knowledge and the Super-Symbolic Economy (1990)

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“We are interrelating data in more ways, giving them context, and thus forming them into information; and we are assembling chunks of information into larger and larger models and architectures of knowledge.”

More than twenty years ago, in 1990, writer and futurist Alvin Toffler, whom you might recall as the author of the Future Shock, penned Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century (public library) — a visionary lens on how social, political, and economic power structures are changing at the dawn of the information age, presaging many of today’s cultural paradigms and touching on other timely topics like networked knowledge, the role of intuition, and the value of adding context.

In Chapter 2, titled “Muscle, Money, and Mind,” Toffler lays the foundation of his core argument — the idea that knowledge is becoming the key currency of a new super-symbolic economy, leaving behind the materiality of the industrial age:

Knowledge itself … turns out to be not only the source of the highest-quality power, but also the most important ingredient of force and wealth. Put differently, knowledge has gone from being an adjunct of money power and muscle power, to being their very essence. It is, in fact, the ultimate amplifier. This is the key to the powershift that lies ahead, and it explains why the battle for control of knowledge and the means of communication is heating up all over the world.

But it isn’t until Chapter 8, titled “The Ultimate Substitute,” that Toffler’s vision truly shines as he offers an elegant definition of the knowledge economy and the dramatic shifts in social currency that we’re only just beginning to see reach a tipping point today:

All economic systems sit upon a ‘knowledge base.’

[…]

At rare moments in history the advance of knowledge has smashed through old barriers. The most important of these breakthroughs has been the invention of new tools for thinking and communication, like the ideogram… the alphabet… the zero… and in our century, the computer.

[…]

Today we are living through one of those exclamation points in history when the entire structure of human knowledge is once again trembling with change as old barriers fall. We are not just accumulating more ‘facts’ — whatever they may be. Just as we are now restructuring companies and whole economies, we are totally reorganizing the production and distribution of knowledge and the symbols used to communicate it.

What does this mean?

It means that we are creating new networks of knowledge … linking concepts to one another in startling ways … building up amazing hierarchies of inference … spawning new theories, hypotheses, and images, based on novel assumptions, new languages, codes, and logics. Businesses, governments, and individuals are collecting and storing more sheer data than any previous generation in history (creating a massive, confusing gold mine for tomorrow’s historians.)

But more important, we are interrelating data in more ways, giving them context, and thus forming them into information; and we are assembling chunks of information into larger and larger models and architectures of knowledge.

Not all this new knowledge is factual or even explicit. Much knowledge, as the term is used here, is unspoken, consisting of assumptions piled atop assumptions, of fragmentary models, of unnoticed analogies, and it includes not simply logical and seemingly unemotional information data, but values, the products of passion and emotion, not to mention imagination and intuition.

It is today’s gigantic upheaval in the knowledge base of society — not computer hype or mere financial manipulation — that explains the rise of a super-symbolic economy.

Powershift follows Future Shock (1970) and The Third Wave (1980).

Image HT It’s Okay To Be Smart

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27 JUNE, 2012

Nora Ephron on Women, Love, Happiness, Reading, Life, and Death

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“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”

What a tragic year it’s been for literary and creatives heroes, with losses as inconsolable as Maurice Sendak, Ray Bradbury, and Hillman Curtis. Last night, we lost the great Nora Ephron (1941-2012) — prolific and thoughtful filmmaker, novelist, journalist, playwright, essayist, and blogger, a feminist with fierce wit, whom The New York Times describes as being “in the Dorothy Parker mold (only smarter and funnier…).”

Today, let’s take a moment and celebrate Ephron with some of her most memorable insights on women, politics, happiness, love, intellectual life, and death.

On reading, in I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman (public library):

Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.

On money and creative incentive, in My Life as an Heiress:

I was extremely lucky not to have ever inherited real money, because I might not have finished writing ‘When Harry Met Sally…,’ which changed my life.

Addressing young women in her 1996 Wellesley commencement speech, a fine addition to some modern history’s finest graduation addresses:

I want to remind you of the undertow, of the specific gravity. American society has a remarkable ability to resist change, or to take whatever change has taken place and attempt to make it go away.

[…]

Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.

On the difference between controversy and political incorrectness, in the January 1976 issue of Esquire:

I am continually fascinated at the difficulty intelligent people have in distinguishing what is controversial from what is merely offensive.

On the evolving metrics of “happiness” for women, in Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women (public library):

We have lived through the era when happiness was a warm puppy, and the era when happiness was a dry martini, and now we have come to the era when happiness is ‘knowing what your uterus looks like.’

On the joy of being awake to the world, in Heartburn (public library):

I look out the window and I see the lights and the skyline and the people on the street rushing around looking for action, love, and the world’s greatest chocolate chip cookie, and my heart does a little dance.

On the politics of the public encroaching on the private, in her 1996 Wellesley commencement address — remarkably timely, despite the dated references, in light of today’s ongoing debates about publicly-private issues like marriage equality and abortion:

One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, don’t take it personally, but listen hard to what’s going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally. Understand: every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you. Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: get back, get back to where you once belonged. When Elizabeth Dole pretends that she isn’t serious about her career, that is an attack on you. The acquittal of O.J. Simpson is an attack on you. Any move to limit abortion rights is an attack on you — whether or not you believe in abortion. The fact that Clarence Thomas is sitting on the Supreme Court today is an attack on you.

On love and the capacity for romantic rebirth, in I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman:

Why hadn’t I realized how much of what I thought of as love was simply my own highly developed gift for making lemonade? What failure of imagination had caused me to forget that life was full of other possibilities, including the possibility that eventually I would fall in love again?

On death, in I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections (public library), her final book:

Everybody dies. There’s nothing you can do about it. Whether or not you eat six almonds a day. Whether or not you believe in God.

Photo via The LA Times

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