Emily Roebling’s combined tenacity, engineering knowledge and management capabilities saw her lead the delivery of the world famous Brooklyn Bridge, New York in the late 19th century. The Brooklyn Bridge would be a family project, but the person responsible for keeping it that way was Emily Roebling.
Although she was unaware of it at the time Emily’s future as a civil engineer was decided when she met her future husband Washington Roebling, a civil war veteran and son of civil engineer John Roebling, designer of many early forms of the cable suspension bridge. Washington became chief engineer for the Brooklyn Bridge works when his father passed away from tetanus in 1869, as the foundation works for the bridge were occurring. However, shortly after becoming Chief Engineer, Washington’s physical involvement in the project was seriously impaired after he contracted Caisson Disease, caused by working in compressed air spaces. Emily Roebling took it into her own hands to continue the work that her husband and father-in-law had started.
Studying all that was needed for the proper construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, Emily learned about mathematics, catenary curves, materials, specifications, and cable construction. With her husband able to see the progress of the works from an apartment in Brooklyn Heights, Emily and Washington worked as a team to lead the construction process. Emily relayed information in between Washington and the builders, taking copious notes of the remaining tasks in the event her husband should pass away before the completion of the bridge. She also represented her husband at social functions which were essential to the completion of the project due to the political interest of this structure. Her capabilities and management of the project allowed her to successfully lobby for the retention of her husband as chief engineer of the bridge despite some protests that Washington was no longer fit for the responsibilities.
For over 10 years on the project up until completion, Emily carried all the responsibilities of a chief engineer with her husband including construction supervision, project management, and public relations with politicians and other stakeholders.
It was an exceptional achievement to deliver this iconic long-span bridge, but even more so for Emily as she achieved it at a time when female engineers in the construction industry were extremely few and far between.
As could only be fitting Emily Roebling was the first to cross the bridge on opening day May 24, 1883.