What do freshman engineering students know about great engineers of the past?

I asked freshman engineering students to prepare a blog entry for their selection of seven notable bridge engineers. Here’s what they came up with: 

Othmar Ammann

Othmar Ammann was born in Schaffhausen, Switzerland in 1871. After studying at the Polytechnikum in Zurich and with Wilhelm Ritter, he moved to the United States. He quickly made his name as a noteworthy bridge engineer after he reported on some of the most famous bridge failures of all time. They include the Tacoma-Narrows and the Quebec Bridge collapses. In 1925, he earned the title of bridge engineer for the New York Port Authority.

Ammann’s early projects were constructed during the Depression Era, making it crucial that his designs were cost-efficient. He was primarily known for his ability to design bridges that were both lightweight and aesthetically pleasing (with loads of “bridginess”) but still economical. His first and last projects are his most famous—the George Washington Bridge and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge are known for being the longest suspension bridges of his time.

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Ammann also engineered several other bridges, including the Triborough, the Bayonne, the Bronx-Whitestone, and the Throgs Neck. He also aided in the planning and construction of the Lincoln Tunnel.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born to Sir Marc Isambard Brunel and Sophia Kingdom Brunel on April 9, 1806 in Portsmouth, Hampshire. Since the age of four he was taught drawing techniques by his father, who was an engineer, and by eight he understood the basic principles of engineering. He went to college in Paris, and after college he began work on the Thames Tunnel, where his father was the Chief Engineer.


Despite the fact that Brunel is nowadays mostly remembered for the design and construction of the Clifton Suspension Bridge in the United Kingdom, he was also responsible for many other engineering projects. Brunel was the designer of the first transatlantic streamer driven by a propeller, the “Great Britain”. He was also amongst the pioneers of Great Britain’s railway system, especially responsible for the design and construction of more that 1000 miles railway, named the “Great Western Railway”. What is interesting about his railway design is that Brunel used a wider gauge rail track than the standard at the time, which he believed that would reduce vibrations and offer a smoother run at high speeds.

Brunel also experimented with a new kind of railway, which used vacuum to drive the train forward. This means of propulsion though was not as efficient as the older, steam engines and it was thereby abandoned. Brunel’s innovative ideas and designs set him at the top of the list of the most important British engineers. His life’s work has been used as the base for technological advancements in the fields of engineering that he operated in. 


The River Avon is home to Brunel’s most famous work, the Clifton Suspension Bridge.  At the time it was built it had the longest span compared to any other bridge in the world.  However, Brunel’s dreams came to a halt when the Queen Square riots took over the town of Clifton due to the arrival of the controversial Sir Charles Wetherell.  The riots were a deterrent to anyone thinking about putting money into the bridge and also construction companies.  Brunel didn’t live to see the bridge finished.  After he died, friends and fellow engineers thought that to finish the bridge would be a great memorial to his contributions.  Brunel was quite excited about railroads and consequently built many railroad bridges.  Those bridges include the  Maidenhead Railway Bridge, the Royal Albert Bridge, the Windsor Railway Bridge, and countless bridges for the Cornwall Railways.  Brunel contributed a significant amount not only to the bridge construction in Great Britain but also to the development of technological infrastructure.

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Fritz Leonhardt

Fritz Leonhardt was born on July 11, 1909 in Stuttgart, Baden-Württemberg, Germany. He graduated from the Technical School of Stuttgart University in 1931 with a degree in Civil Engineering. He later traveled to the United States and received his masters from Purdue University in 1933.

Leonhardt then returned to Stuttgart and worked in the main office for the Reichsautobahn. He worked in the bridge construction division under the supervision of German engineer and bridge builder, Karl Schaechterle. Leonhardt then worked under Paul Bonatz at the Reichstransportation Ministry in Berlin, where he developed a light deck system, the orthotropic deck. The orthotropic deck reduces the weight of continuous beams by allowing spans and slenderness ratios that previously were unknown.

While working in Germany Leonhardt finished his education by receiving a Doctorate in Engineering from Stuttgart University in 1938 and also married Liselotte Klein in 1936.

After receiving his doctorate Leonhardt began working on projects of a larger scale. He was the design and construction supervisor of the suspension bridge across the Rhine, the Cologne-Rodenkirchen Bridge, until 1941. And after collaborating with Wolfhart Andrä on the Cologne-Rodenkirchen Bridge, they opened the partnership, Leonhardt, Andrä, und Partner. From 1948 to 1951 Leonhardt was the technical director for the Cologne-Mulheim Bridge, which was the first place he used his orthotropic deck. The steel shortage in Germany around World War II led to a greater demand for material saving designs, the orthotropic deck fit the need at time very well and was used in the creation of many steel continuous girder bridge.

Leonhardt also worked with suspension bridges. He created a design for a mono-cable suspension bridge which he patented in 1953; and he cooperated with Schaechterle, Wintergerst, Grassl and Tamms on the designs of various Düsseldorf cable-stayed bridges. In addition to the bridges in Düsseldorf, Leonhardt also aided with the designs of the Pasco-Kennewick Bridge in 1978 and the Helgeland Bridge in 1981. Other than bridges Leonhardt is known for making the Stuttgart Television Tower, the first TV tower made completely from concrete in 1956.

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From 1958 to 1974 Fritz Leonhardt was a professor at Stuttgart University teaching about reinforced concrete and prestressed concrete. His research and ideas for prestressed concrete was first used in 1963 on the Caroní Bridge in Venezuela. In 1967 he became President of the University for two years. Leonhardt was very dedicated to both designing bridges and researching their designs.

He received many awards including the Werner-von-Siemens-Ring, the Honorary Medal Emil Mörsch, the Freyssinet medal of the FIP, and the Gold Medal of the Institution of Structural Engineers. In 1999 on Leonhardt’s ninetieth birthday, he was honored once again with the creation of the Fritz Leonhardt Prize to recognize outstanding achievements in structural engineering. Leonhardt passed away a few months later on December 30, 1999 in Stuttgart


Joseph Strauss

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Joseph Strauss is regarded as one of the most ingenious and daring minds in the engineering world.  He is most well known for his design of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, which can be considered one of the greatest bridges ever engineered. His work was not limited to just this, as he designed over 400 drawbridges around the nation.  Strauss contributed greatly to bridge design with his development of his “bascule” drawbridge design.

Soon after, he formed his own company called Strauss Bascule Bridge Company.  However, his greatest creation did not follow his bascule bridge design, and instead was his first design of a suspension bridge. This creation is the Golden Gate Bridge, which at the time, was the longest suspension bridge in the world.  Some of his other famous designs include the Burnside Bridge, the Lewis and Clark Bridge, and the Cherry Street Strauss Trunnion Bascule Bridge.

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel was born in Dijon, France, on December 15, 1832. He was greatly influenced as a child by his uncle, a chemist at the Ecole Centrale de Arts et Manufactures, from where Eiffel himself graduated in 1855.  After graduating from Ecole Centrale, Eiffel began his foray into civil engineering. In 1858, he worked in Bordeaux, in the southwest of France, where he found a love for designing railway bridges while designing and supervising the construction of the Bordeaux Bridge.


Eight years later, Eiffel started his own company, Eiffel et Cie. One of the first bridges his company built was the Ponit Maria in Portugal, followed in 1876 by the Porto Viaduct over the river Douro, and in 1884 by the Garabit Viaduct. Eiffel’s other works include the Pest Railway Station in Hungary, the internal structure of the Statue of Liberty, and the Eiffel Tower in 1889. His company went on to design portable bridges, which could be sold in kits, and then the locks for the Panama Canal. Unfortunately, this project ended in one of the biggest financial scandals of the century. Eiffel’s plans were not released – the USA used a different design to construct the canal. Eiffel was indicted for fraud, and though he was later cleared of all charges, he retired as an engineer.


Eiffel died twelve days after his 91st birthday.


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John Roebling

John A. Roebling, a German civil engineer, was the designer for one of the most famous American bridges, the Brooklyn Bridge.  His name, along with the names of his son and daughter-in-law, are inscribed on the bridge to celebrate its completion in 1883. The majority of his bridges, including the Brooklyn Bridge, were wire suspension bridges. In fact, in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge was the world's longest suspension bridge. 

During the building process, Roebling's foot was injured and several of his toes had to be amputated.  Roebling refused any treatment other than "water therapy," and contracted tetanus.  It was incurable and less than a month later he died from it. Roebling's "equilibrium strength approach" helped allow the Brooklyn Bridge to be built.  And, after his death, his son, Washington Roebling, and daughter-in-law, Emily, continued his work on the Brooklyn Bridge.  The Brooklyn Bridge would not be as it is today without John Roebling or his family.


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Last but not least (and he’s not really a bridge engineer either):


Imhotep was the chief architect of the Pyramid complex at Saqqara (the only architectural structure with his name on it), although he has been credited with innumerable other projects throughout ancient Egypt. Prior to the 19th century, he was viewed as legend, although after the discovery of Saqqara and the physical proof of his existence, he was acknowledged as being a real person.

Some of his greatest achievements are pioneering the stone-dressed building (a building constructed entirely of stone), and his many medical advances, a function of his as a chief doctor as well as chief of public works.


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Contributing to this blog entry:

John Abel, Adam Cohen, William Collins, Mike  Cresham, Amy Demicco, Daniel Eisenberg, Ralph Faia, Karl Gaebler, Michael Geerdes, Orli Gottlieb, Dylan Haas, James Kammert, Janice Lam, Michael Ernsting, Ashley Martin, Michael McCarthy, Albert Nichols, Panagiotis Pylarinos, Andrew Salber, Natalie Salk, Jessica Scolnic, Andrew Summerfield, and Michael Van Saun



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“Gustave Eiffel.” La Tour Eiffel. 2008. 04 Oct. 2009.

“History and Heritage of Civil Engineering: Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923)”. American Society of Civil Engineers. 04 Oct. 2009.  .






"Brunel." Brunel's ss Great Britain - a great day out in Bristol. Web. 04 Oct. 2009. <http://www.ssgreatbritain.org/Brunel.aspx>.

"Brunel Collection: Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) papers." Archives Hub. Web. 01 Oct. 2009. <http://www.archiveshub.ac.uk/news/03021207.html>.

"Isambard Kingdom Brunel." BBC History. Web. 1 Oct. 2009. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/brunel_kingdom_>.