The best stories not only tell a cracking good yarn, but also make you insatiably curious about the stories hinted at within the tale that aren’t told. The Makers of Things is such a story (plus, lovely pictures).
Some of things I wondered about…
Wanting to watch the men at work. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at a city, especially the big ones, and not marveled that we built this. Even more amazing to look at enormous, essential structures that were constructed long before drywall and Caterpillars. Hell, we’re still trying to figure out just how the Egyptians and Mayans did it.
In the late 1800s, we were capable of designing and building a bridge that still stands and ferries umpteen tonnes of vehicle traffic daily (despite being built before most of these vehicles were invented), and yet we didn’t have the antibiotics that could well have saved Roebling’s life. I wonder what else he would have achieved had he lived? I wonder what else any number of great and visionary people would have achieved had they had a chance (thanks to modern medicine, etc.) to live up to their potential.
I wonder how Roebling’s son, Washington, felt about taking over the project after his father’s death. Was he intimidated? Excited? Simply accepting duty? And how frustrating must it have been to end up bedridden, feebly watching the progress and wondering about the on-site details, some of which, one imagines, his wife Emily didn’t necessarily tell him.
Emily Roebling pretty much project managed almost the entire building process — over a decade. What a remarkable woman she must have been. Not only possessed of an advanced education in mathematics and engineering, but with a personality and will that made all the various parties (often, presumably, at odds with each other) listen to her. And this was in the 1870s when ladies simply didn’t do… well, much, a lot of the time. (Happy Ada Lovelace Day, Emily.)
Could you ever get used to working inside a caisson? How many men went to work and spent their days terrified with claustrophobia or of drowning or contracting “caisson disease”, but had little choice because they had families to support? Mentally comparing a job physically working in a giant, pitch-dark, wooden box, under a river, to sitting on my ass in front of a computer all day is… a bit mind-boggling.
Many of these men would have been Union soldiers a few years prior. There wasn’t really any post-combat reintegration or therapy back then. How did these men manage life? Did they just get on with it, trying to hide the difficult times as best they could? Was there some group therapy inherent in being involved in a project so massive, of such grandeur and scale, with so many other people, that might have helped them forget and manage a little?
How would it have felt to be the one man to make the decision to stop digging on the New York side of the bridge? To decide to build on sand, despite engineering and, hell, biblical misgivings. I wonder if Roebling knows that, still today, he was right.
How did it feel to the people who worked on the bridge to finish it, to see the traffic start to cross it, linking the cities? How many of them — those who survived and those who didn’t — made their mark on the bridge or in its foundations somewhere, intentionally, with carved initials, or unintentionally, with spilled blood?
How much confidence would it have given the engineers and construction crews who began work scant years later on the Williamsburg and then Manhattan bridges. Doing something that had never been done to that scale before. Changing the face of a city. Surely they knew what Yes we can truly feels like.