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Articles > Great Morph series

Great Morph
Part 2

We are now living in an age where the irresistible trend is to be influenced by information derived from the internet. The vast amount of misinformation now readily available on the internet gets posted into one of three categories. The most serious problem is deliberate propaganda. A lesser issue is the ability to modify digital images, often as a form of humor. For any historian, the biggest mess is the enormous assortment of rumors, delusions, fables, myths, folktales, hoaxes, and urban legends masquerading as facts. Many of these are the non-facts posted by well-meaning people with the best of intentions.

By Don Sayenga

Published in the Wire Rope News & Sling Technology February 2016

Brooklyn Bridge Washington Roebling

In January 2014, Dr. Farida Vis, a media researcher at the University of Sheffield, emphasized: “...every case of misinformation is unique and should be considered independently, paying attention to the complexities of the ecosystem it circulates within. In terms of interpreting misinformation, human evaluation will remain essential to put information into context, and context is ultimately what this is all about...” In the context of David Steinman’s labor of love with the Roebling family, it seems he became infatuated with the concept of Emily Roebling defending her husband to avert his demotion.

Like a Bolt Out Of The Blue

The Academy Award song of 1940 was being hummed all over North America in the weeks prior to involvement of the USA in the horrible carnage we now refer to as World War Two. “When You Wish Upon A Star” was written for Disney by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington to be sung by a cartoon cricket to a cartoon puppet, but it conveyed to humans everywhere that Fate would step in to pull everyone through because dreams do come true and it doesn’t matter who you are. Perhaps when the song was at the height of popularity, Dr. Steinman already had begun to ponder the role played by Emily Roebling while serving as her husband’s private secretary. Maybe he was driven in part by his own experience as a practicing engineer when working on public projects. Civil engineering, after all, is a bit mundane compared with gene splicing or nuclear physics. Working with designs and structures intended to be used by the general public doesn’t require a lot of arcane terminology. Although a few of the civil engineers themselves make things murky by repeatedly using terms which need to be defined unless you are already a trained engineer, the discipline of civil engineering is straightforward. It has been that way for thousands of years. Suddenly, it must have dawned upon Steinman: if Emily could talk the lingo, she must have fully understood the lingo.

The evidence for Emily’s engineering credibility is scant. Her personal friend, Mary S. Logan, didn’t even mention this facet of her life in “The Part Taken By Women In American History”(1912). Logan began her snapshot of Emily by declaring “No woman is entitled to a higher place in the role of honor” but she goes on from there to praise Emily as “sister, daughter, wife, mother, and gifted woman.” When alluding to her tireless decade of communication on the bridge project, Logan says she “...proved her rare ability, dauntless courage, keen sagacity, and true wifely devotion...” All those characteristics are surely noteworthy, but they are not essential qualities in terms of engineering decisions made in dealings with a team of experienced civil engineers.

One of the very few contemporary citations relied upon as support for the great rumor is the clip quoting an anonymous man located in Trenton “well acquainted with the family” which appeared in The New York Times the day before the bridge opened. Titled “Mrs. Roebling’s Skill”, it proclaims “As soon as Mr. Roebling was stricken... Mrs. Roebling applied herself to the study of engineering, and she succeeded so well that in a short time she was able to assume the duties of chief engineer. Such an achievement is something remarkable.” This bold and fascinating assertion can be interpreted as both a promotion of Emily as an engineering expert but also as a demotion of her husband’s role in the most significant achievement of his entire life. It raises a question about the motives of someone who would write such a letter, while choosing to remain unidentified.

Standing by your man in a complex ecosystem

Driven by the ‘drama, romance, and poetry’ of the situation in the 1880s, and apparently basing his mythmaking entirely upon the G.F.K. newspaper quotation as published by Schuyler, Steinman wrote the following words about Emily’s alleged public appearance at an A.S.C.E. meeting in New York City: “It was an appeal to the engineering profession to prevent an injustice. The American Society of Civil Engineers was meeting at the time. Mrs. Roebling went to the meeting and secured permission to read her husband’s statement. It was the first time that august body had ever been addressed by a woman... the impressive presentation produced an immense sensation... The backing of the engineering profession was secured, and the confidence of the public was won.” Steinman’s embellishment of the great rumor also fixed the date of the demotion attempt as 1882. His link with the G.F.K. letter is established by his use of the identical phrase “immense sensation.”

Although no one has been able to connect Steinman’s version of the great rumor with the real world of the 1880s, his stature among civil engineers was adequate to insulate his glorified version from challenges in the 1940s. He’d been President of the Engineers Club of Brooklyn, plus he’d served as President of the A.S.C.E.’s Metropolitan Section 1946-47. He would have had access to any A.S.C.E. records if any existed. His book “Builders of the Bridge” was considered to be authoritative as of 1945 and his role within the civil engineers’ society seemed to certify it. The John A. Roebling’s Sons Company in Trenton, NJ had become known all over the world. The book made him into the expert on the subject.

Everyone apparently had forgotten Emily Roebling was a wife and mother with a 9-year-old son to care for in 1872 when her husband was carried up unconscious from the New York caisson. As he began to receive medical care, she’d been forced to assume two additional duties as private nurse and private secretary. His ability to meet with others in person steadily deteriorated. The extra workload hit her while they were residing in Trenton about sixty miles from the bridge site. It was not the first example of a spouse becoming a caregiver, but it did provide a dramatic example of a private secretary assuming an unpaid responsibility for communications between an executive and his staff in the middle of a giant project. This happens all the time in America but only rarely are the two roles played by the same person.

photo by Eugene de Salignac

On the day of the bridge dedication in 1883, Congressman (and trustee) Abram Hewitt said Washington Roebling had “directed the execution of this great work from its inception to its completion.” As for the men who’d actually built the bridge, he named the eleven members of Washington Roebling’s engineering staff who had “made humanity itself their debtor.” He added a catch-all for “unnamed men...by whose unflinching courage...the work was carried on...because their names will never be known...” In his dramatic conclusion, he specifically cited Emily, crediting her because, as he put it, though her “communication was maintained between the directing power of its construction and the obedient agencies of its execution.”

The Builders of the Bridge by D. B. Steinman

The Backing of the Engineering Profession

After Steinman’s book was published in 1945, nobody was more thrilled by it than Theodore Belzner (1879- ?), an engineer living in Brooklyn. He had been active with the civil engineers’ society for many years and was named a Life Member. Although he himself had not exerted much effort toward doing research and writing the history of the bridge, he held a deep fixation on Emily Roebling’s “splendid and difficult service.” Belzner was in a perfect position to endorse Steinman’s fable because he had been employed by the Dept. of Public Works since 1924 as the inspector of the Brooklyn Bridge. He walked the bridge four times each day and he knew the structure inside and out. Despite the lack of any essential verifications, Belzner went for the entire Steinman pitch with a full swing.

On October 18, 1946, the Engineers’ Club of Brooklyn celebrated the club’s 50th anniversary. According to an account of the event given to the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper by Belzner, author David Steinman was the center of attention. After talking about his book, he turned everyone’s gaze toward Emily: “He spoke of his own inspiration and how it helped shape his career...This led him to an emphasis of our indebtedness to our loyal women, the wives of the engineers- a splendid compliment to the guests, the ladies who were so instrumental in their help when the test came in fulfilling the tasks set up by their men. He pointed to the instance of Mrs. Roebling. Dr. Steinman therefore proposed that the club take over the sponsorship of a suitable memorial for this splendid woman to commemorate this outstanding event in the history of Brooklyn. This suggestion met with a most hearty response and was thus started to fruition.”

painting the Brooklyn Bridge photo by Eugene de Salignac

Anyone who reads “Builders of the Bridge” can see it was written in the form of an intellectual history book aiming to enhance perception of all civil engineers in American culture by citing three members of the Roebling family as a trio of role models. The president of the club appointed a four-man Emily Warren Roebling Memorial Committee. Little was done until 1949, when Theodore Belzner became chairman. Because “the appropriateness of a memorial...was stimulated by Dr. Steinman’s biography”, Belzner and his committee followed the easiest path. They duplicated the book’s title, readjusting the subtitle “the story of John Roebling and his son” so that Emily moved upward in the triad hierarchy.

In 1950, one of Dr. Steinman’s own personal dreams came true. The city’s engineers decided it had become imperative to modernize the Brooklyn Bridge. He was named to be consulting engineer for the big job. His assignment was to prepare plans for removal of railroad tracks and the intermediate trusses on the suspended span, and to expand the roadway from four lanes to six lanes with concrete-filled steel grating. The approaches on both sides of the river were widened to accommodate future connections with the proposed Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

tablet David Steinman and Theodore Belzner

Meanwhile, Belzner’s committee concluded their task. A bronze tablet was cast. It was unveiled at a meeting of the Brooklyn Engineers Club on May 17, 1951. Belzner announced it was the intent, after completion of the city’s project to modernize the bridge, for the plaque to be “installed on the easterly face of the New York tower above the promenade level.” The inscribed text of the club’s 1951 bronze plaque marks the launch of The Great Morph. Under the title “BUILDERS OF THE BRIDGE” the plaque proclaims Emily Roebling “helped her stricken husband... complete the construction of this bridge from the plans of his father...who gave his life to the bridge... Back of every great work we can find the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman.”

The tablet was installed in a ceremony May 24, 1953. David Steinman and Theodore Belzner were featured speakers. Reiterating his fable, Steinman said Washington Roebling “took over building the bridge” from his father John Roebling and Emily Roebling “learned engineering” to assist with building it. The plaque did a good job fulfilling the intent to honor Emily. What it also did is modify the historical facts. In the wording of the text, John Roebling, (who died in 1869 before construction began and had nothing to do with actually building the bridge) was shifted into a much larger role among the builders as the one who prepared ‘plans’, implying he had made all the plans. Washington Roebling, the Chief Engineer in charge of the entire project to build the bridge from scratch, got slightly downsized into someone who merely completed the construction.

Walking in the clouds with higher math

After the renovated Brooklyn Bridge was reopened in 1954, the fable attracted the attention of Emma G. Sterne (1894-1971) an activist in New York City who was working as an editor for the American Book Company. Her employer ABC specialized in school textbooks but they also published other works for younger readers. In the 1950s, Emma was managing a series of juvenile fiction titles known as the American Heritage Series of Aladdin Books. The subjects of these books were famous people like Nathanael Greene, Sequoyah, Jedidiah Smith, and Andrew Jackson. The readers were presumed to be American teenagers. ABC farmed out the penning of these novels to a group of highly skilled freelance writers. One of them was Frances Browin (1898-1986) of Philadelphia, who also served as Editor of the Quaker magazine “Friends Journal” during the 1960s.

In 1956, Frances Browin dreamed up a character named Peter Schmidt whose father once had worked with John Roebling. In her 192-page novel, “Big Bridge To Brooklyn - The Roebling Story”, Peter gets befriended by Washington and Emily Roebling. They urge him to study to become an engineer. In her chapter entitled “With Clouds To Walk On”, Browin sketches Peter’s itinerary one specific evening in September 1882, at 8 p.m., when he is the person who is asked to accompany Emily Roebling on the ferryboat to Manhattan where she is scheduled to address the A.S.C.E. Although he is not present for her speech, she tells him afterward “...they treated me very well...very well indeed...I’m sure they’ll fight to keep my husband from being forced out...”

The Browin novel is obviously based upon Steinman’s fable rather than upon original research. It includes in its depiction of the fictional episode, a few embellishments matching the mysterious 1926 G.F.K. letter, including the location of the hypothetical A.S.C.E. meeting at The Rink. By marking the date in September 1882, the chronology of her fictional description meshed with the actual event of the trustee vote on Washington’s demotion. Emily had celebrated her 39th birthday that month, but Francis Browin by-passed the G.F.K. observation of Emily being “young and handsome” at the time. This walk in the clouds added a broadened dimension to the state of Emily’s education: “...had you heard that I’ve taken up engineering” Emily asks Peter early in the novel. “Its all true...my husband has been teaching me all kinds of things about engineering and higher mathematics so I could discuss his orders with the assistant engineers.” Her newly-acquired education impresses Peter’s girlfriend: “...Mrs. Roebling can study engineering and still remain a lady...”

Read more about The Great Morph series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

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