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Roebling, John Augustus, 1806-1869



  • Existence: 1806-1869
  • Existence: 1806 - 1869

Biographical Note

Johann August Röbling (John Augustus Roebling) was born on July 12, 1806 in Mühlhausen in the state of Thuringia, Prussia, the son of tobacco shop owner Christoph Polycarpus Roebling and his wife Friederike Dorthea. First tutored by the mathematician Dr. Ephraim Solomon Unger, he later attended the Royal Polytechnic Institute of Berlin. There he studied under renowned professors J.F. Dietleyn and J.A. Eytelwein, as well as philosopher Georg Wilhelm Hegel, whose influence on Roebling would be life-long. Roebling completed his education in civil engineering in 1826 and began work as an apprentice engineer on road and bridge projects in Westphalia, Thuringia. He saw limited opportunities for career advancement and felt the lack of individual freedom in his native Prussia. He and his brother Carl joined a group of émigrés to the United States in 1831 and arrived in Philadelphia on the sixth of August. John and Carl Roebling settled northeast of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and founded the farming community of Saxonburg. In 1836, John Roebling married Johanna Herting also of Mühlhausen and that same year began work as an engineer for the State of Pennsylvania. Their first child, Washington Augustus Roebling, was born on May 26, 1837. John obtained his American citizenship four months later, on September 30. John Roebling worked on survey projects for the construction of canals and railroads. It was in this capacity that he became aware of the inadequacy of the hemp hawsers used to tow boats up the inclines on the state’s canal system. Recalling a German engineering paper describing methods of making rope from wire, Roebling was inspired to produce a more durable alternative. He soon began experimenting with wire rope on his Saxonburg farm. With local farmers as his workers, he produced wire rope on a crude rope walk. In 1841, he made his first sale of the product to the Pennsylvania State Board of Public Works. Roebling’s inventive mind led him to propose a suspended canal aqueduct over the Allegheny River at Pittsburgh, which was approved in 1844. His first structure was also the world’s first suspension aqueduct. He designed and built repairs on the Monongahela Suspension bridge at Pittsburgh in 1846. Between 1847 and 1850 he erected four suspension aqueducts for the Delaware and Hudson Canal in New York and Pennsylvania. In 1848 he moved his family and his growing wire rope business to Trenton, New Jersey. By then the Roebling offspring consisted of Washington, Laura, Ferdinand, Elvira and Josephine; Charles was born the following year. By 1855 John A. Roebling had completed an engineering marvel - a railroad suspension bridge over the Niagara River. Roebling’s design of cables and stays made it possible for the suspension bridge to bear the weight of locomotive traffic. Construction of the Kentucky River Bridge was started that same year but was abandoned in 1857 for lack of financial resources. The Covington and Cincinnati Bridge project began in 1856 and was officially opened in 1867 after an interruption of work during the Civil War. Roebling was in Cincinnati attending to details of the bridge construction when his wife Johanna died in Trenton in 1864. At 1057 feet, the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world. The bridge was renamed the John A. Roebling Bridge in 1984. Roebling’s son Washington attended Trenton Academy for four years, and then entered Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, America’s leading engineering school at the time. Washington graduated in 1857 with a degree in civil engineering and immediately began to assist his father in the wire rope business. He also assisted in the construction of the Allegheny River Suspension Bridge at Pittsburgh, which was completed in 1860. Washington became a member of the New York State Militia of the Union Army in 1861. He served as a military engineer, planning and building suspension bridges such as those across the Rappahannock River (later captured and destroyed) and across the Shenandoah River at Harpers Ferry. Washington received an honorable discharge on January 1, 1865, and two months later was promoted to the rank of colonel. He married Emily Warren, daughter of Sylvanus and Phoebe Lickley Warren of Cold Spring, New York, on January 18, 1865. Washington was introduced to Emily by her brother, General Gouverneur Kemble Warren, Washington’s commanding officer at Gettysburg. The New York State Legislature approved a bill in 1867 chartering a private company to build a bridge across the East River, linking the cities of New York and Brooklyn. John A. Roebling had long considered such a project, producing design drawings and proposing the feasibility of a bridge to Abram S. Hewitt in 1857. But not until the severe winter of 1866-1867, when ferry service between the two cities was seriously disrupted, did the idea gain widespread support. The bridge company chose Roebling as chief engineer in 1868. While Roebling prepared the initial plans for the bridge, his son Washington spent a year in Europe (1867-1868) studying engineering methods, especially the pneumatic caisson method of sinking foundations. This method would be used for the foundations of what then was known as the “East River Bridge.” Emily accompanied Washington on the trip and their son John A. Roebling II was born on November 21, 1867 in his grandfather’s hometown of Mühlhausen. While Roebling was making a final survey of the bridge site and the location for the Brooklyn tower, a ferryboat struck the pier on which he was standing, crushing his foot. Roebling, a proponent of the water cure, insisted on this treatment to heal his injury. He died as a result of tetanus a few weeks later, on July 22, 1869. In his will, Roebling left his wire rope business to his sons and asked that they continue operating it under the name John A. Roebling’s Sons. The company was incorporated under that name in 1876 with Washington A. Roebling as president. Charles G. Roebling took over as president in 1877 and Ferdinand Roebling assumed the position of Secretary/Treasurer. John A. Roebling’s Sons grew, diversified and prospered for many years under the leadership of Roebling descendants. Washington A. Roebling was appointed Chief Engineer for the Brooklyn Bridge immediately following the death of his father. He completed plans, designed necessary machinery, and until 1872, actively supervised construction of the bridge. That summer, while in the caisson under the Brooklyn tower, Roebling was stricken with the mysterious “caisson disease.” Today divers know that “the bends” is caused by frequent and prolonged subjection to high air pressure, as in the pneumatic caisson, and a too rapid return to normal pressure. The illness left Washington unable to continue onsite supervision of construction work and permanently impaired his health. For the next eleven years, Roebling directed construction from his Brooklyn residence at 110 Columbia Heights, occasionally observing its progress through a telescope. He tutored Emily in engineering and she conveyed his instructions to C. C. Martin, Francis Collingwood, William Paine and others who were in charge of onsite operations. The major construction work on the bridge was completed in December 1882. The opening ceremonies, held on May 24, 1883, were attended by President Chester A. Arthur, New York Governor Grover Cleveland, and local dignitaries. Unable to accompany his wife at the ceremonies because of his condition, Roebling watched from his window. Emily Roebling was given the honor of being the first person to drive across the bridge. With the Brooklyn Bridge completed, Roebling and his family moved to Troy, New York, where his son John A. Roebling II attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. After John’s graduation in 1888, the family returned to Trenton. They moved into a newly constructed Tudor-style mansion at 191 West State Street in 1892. John A. Roebling II married Margaret Shippen MacIlvaine in 1889. John, who earned a master’s degree in chemistry from Rensselaer, conducted research at John A. Roebling’s Sons for several years. He then pursued scientific investigations in his private laboratory and gave much of his attention to philanthropy. Margaret died in 1930 and John married Helen Rice from Shropshire, England in 1931. Emily Warren Roebling died on February 28, 1903. Washington later married Mrs. Cornelia Witsell Farrow of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1908. He continued to consult on alterations to the Brooklyn Bridge and served on several bridge committees. Washington A. Roebling died on July 21, 1926 at the age of eighty-nine. He was buried, according to his wishes, beside his first wife, Emily, in the cemetery at Cold Spring, New York, across the Hudson River from West Point.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Roebling collection

Identifier: MC 4

The Roebling Collection documents the personal and professional activities of John A. Roebling and Washington A. Roebling; and business activities of the John A. Roebling’s Sons Company.  The material dates from 1824 to 1926 with the bulk of the material dating from 1844 to 1883.

Dates: Created: 1824 - 1926; Other: Date acquired: 00/00/1958