The world is facing a pandemic and many individuals are struggling with their daily lives as a result.
From a historical perspective, there is nothing new about adversity. My book ‘Building Passions‘ includes some examples in the past.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel was almost killed in 1828 when the Thames Tunnel collapsed during construction and flooded the works nearly drowning him. He spent many months regaining his health after a serious injury to his leg. It was a frustrating time for him, but once he had recovered he went on to design the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, his first epic structure.
Augustus Welbin Pugin was a highly talented young designer who was used by Sir Charles Barry to create the beautiful Gothic-style decoration of the New Palace of Westminster. His health suffered fatally from the exertions he placed on himself to meet deadlines for his many demanding clients. Charles Barry followed him for the same reasons, though considerably older, in 1860.
In 1879 a train crossed the Tay Bridge in Scotland in the middle of a huge storm. Unknown to the passengers, the iron structure supporting the track had undergone immense stress due to the wind and waves. Suddenly, the bridge collapsed causing the engine and coaches to fall into the estuary. Many lives were lost and the famous bridge engineer never recovered from the damage to his reputation – more positively, the resulting inquest led to sturdier bridge-building, exemplified by the vast steel structure of the Forth Rail Bridge also in Scotland. Sir William Arrol supplied the improved version of iron for that project, as well as for Tower Bridge in London, completed four years later.
Loch Etive is a Scottish sea inlet or fjord north of Oban in the Highlands.
Back in the 19th Century it was decided to extend the railway from Oban northwards and the big issue was whether to go round Loch Etive or across it. Unlike other lochs it had a shallow part at a place called ‘The Falls of Lora’. The name was apt as when the tide comes out of the loch it produces a standing torrent of water.
The engineers (John Wolfe Barry and partners) knew it would be too difficult to place any part of a bridge directly in that part of the loch, so needed to come up with a different, not too expensive solution for the trains to cross. They decided on a single span cantilever action bridge made from steel.
What is a cantilever bridge? The most famous example then and still with us is the Forth Rail Bridge, also in Scotland, for which the huge amounts of steel were supplied, like at Loch Etive and Tower Bridge, by William Arrol and Company of Glasgow.
The Forth Rail Bridge was over-specified due to the high winds in the wide sea estuary where it was located – by contrast the bridge over Loch Etive would shorter and could be based on a simpler design, but using the same cantilever principle. The rising bascule leaves on Tower Bridge also acted as movable cantilevers, extending out from the tower bases to meet in the middle of the River Thames.
When the Connel Ferry Bridge was completed in 1903, it became the world’s longest single span cantilever bridge (the Forth Rail Bridge had double spans!). It was soon taken over by other bridges, but I feel it set a precedent and it is still with us now for road traffic only.
This is the first post in a series of 10 favourite structures featured in the book ‘Building Passions’ by Nick von Behr. The 11th post will try to rank the structures in order of appeal.
In early 2018 I posted a blog in the lead up to officially launching this website on a key date.
Sir John Wolfe Barry died on 22 January 1918 at his home, Delahay House on Chelsea Embankment. This website was set up to commemorate the centenary of that sad day and English Heritage will be putting up a Blue Plaque at the location on 19 November.
I used the phrase ‘Benjamin Baker’s Dozen’ to describe the 13 days to the launch date. It was a play on words, as Sir Benjamin Baker, the co-builder of the iconic Forth Rail Bridge, was a good friend of Wolfe Barry’s and featured on the site. Nothing about baking then!
Fast forward 22 months and I will be launching the book about John Wolfe Barry, Henry Brunel and their famous families on 20 November. Baker features in that as well, but sadly for bakers, still no new recipes!
But there is a connection.
My wife Viktoriya loves baking and has suggested that she makes a cake to celebrate the book launch. We’ve not decided on the details yet as Tower Bridge might be a bit too complex, much as I would love it!
Once it has been created I will of course publish a photo, but perhaps not the recipe which will remain a family secret for at least 100 years.
I was hoping to publish my forthcoming book about JWB, his family and close friend Henry Brunel, son of IKB, by now. It will happen by the end of September latest.
The good news is that I have had more time to adjust my text to address a broader readership and write more about the famous Brunel family. While the Barrys rightly got the credit for Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament, they couldn’t have achieved this without the legacy and contribution of others.
In addition to the Brunels the book covers Augustus Pugin and a little on his father, from whom he inherited his incredible gothic drawing talents. It also looks at William Arrol’s contribution to the building of Tower Bridge and the more structurally impressive Forth Railway Bridge.
Which shows that there are stories behind stories behind stories. Meeting recently with former work colleagues, providing the ‘back story’ to key issues was one area we felt had been part of our career learning.
The trick is to find the key stories, dig up enough relevant detail and communicate this to your intended audiences.
There are plenty of students out there who don’t fully understand their university and career options. In many cases this may be fine, but for some it could also mean the difference between a happy life and one where you are struggling to find your niche.
My major piece of careers advice to anyone considering their employment choices is to use any reasonable and ethical means available to find out the truth about a profession – this may include becoming a member of a body or tracking down and speaking directly to graduates and apprentices within a sector. Fortune favours the brave and employers will reward initiative with an opportunity to prove yourself.
Finally, there are always second chances and I am currently grasping one for myself by writing my first book much later than I had hoped to. This won’t be my sole occupation but an important part of who I am. It took me a long time to get here but it has been worth it.
NB: the image of the Forth Rail Bridge in this post reflects one of the banner images on the IStructE’s new website and is the iconic 19th Century structure built from the same Arrol steel used on Tower Bridge.
Roma Agrawal is publishing her book ‘Built: the Hidden Stories Behind our Structures’ on 8 February.
I’m fortunate to know Roma and we share common interests in opening up (structural) engineering to a wider base, particularly getting more females into a profession traditionally dominated by men.
One of the stories Roma writes about in her book is on the Quebec Bridge in Canada. It’s a bridge I don’t know too well so I decided to find out more using my favourite search tool, Google of course! This brought up the Wikipedia reference used in the above hyperlink. If you want to delve further you can connect to other steel cantilever bridges around the world including the Connel (Ferry) Bridge by Sir John Wolfe Barry, and the most famous example of all, the Forth Railway Bridge built by John Fowler and Benjamin Baker (a close friend and business partner of Wolfe Barry).
But what is so special about the Quebec Bridge?
It is a world record holder as the longest spanning cantilever bridge ever built – this was to prove the downfall of the first version of the bridge which collapsed during construction on 29 August 1907 with the loss of many lives. Roma will tell you more in her book.
Famous bridges aren’t the only structures to have stories behind them. The building you live in may have more than one stor(e)y. Perhaps not as exciting or indeed tragic as the Quebec Bridge …