Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America - Henry Petroski (1996)


This book tells the stories of engineers who have dreamed and engineers who have toiled, of bridges of celebrity and bridges of burden, and it is about the nature of technology in a human context. Some renowned engineers and some famous bridges have tended to overshadow their contemporaries and neighbors, but the full range of stories reveals that the lesser-known engineers have been of no less importance in shaping our built environment. Indeed, the personalities of all kinds of engineers, with their faults and foibles coexisting with their dreams and designs, have played as much of a role as has their technical know-how in bringing familiar bridges to fruition.

As is to be expected, only some of the bridges of which any engineer dreams get realized, but that is not to say that even the wildest schemes have not influenced others, and hence our roadscapes. A full understanding of how and why a great bridge came to be what it is where it is requires appreciating the often decades-long struggles that engineers have experienced with themselves, their colleagues, and their communities. In telling the stories of some engineers and some bridges, this book must necessarily tell the stories of many bridges and many engineers engaged in the professional, economic, political, and personal conflicts that occur in the technical, social, and cultural activities in which we all participate. When we see in the stories of bridges the full human dimensions of engineers and engineering, we also see more clearly the inextricable interrelationships between technology and humanity. As no person is an island, so no thing is an island. Certainly no bridge is an island.

And no book is an island. Many bridges were provided by many people on the way to this book’s being realized, and I wish to acknowledge and thank at least some of them. Arthur Singer turned my rough sketch of an idea into a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which enabled me to travel to bridge sites, to gather illustrations, and to write. Ashbel Green, my editor at Knopf, has once again given me my head and his support. Anne T. Zaroff-Evans did a marvelous job of copy-editing, and Knopf’s Jennifer Bernstein and Melvin Rosenthal also made the process from manuscript to book a smooth one, at least from my point of view.

There was also, of course, much help long before there was a manuscript, and libraries and librarians were, as always, remarkably tolerant of my inquiries. The wonderful collection of the Aleksandar S. Vesić Engineering Library at Duke University continues to provide resources and convenience of immeasurable value. Eric Smith, its former librarian, who was forever patient with my endless requests, located and obtained for me important materials so diverse that no one institution could ever be expected to contain them all. Rich Hines and Dianne Himler have continued to get to me the many odd library materials that are so essential in the final stages of preparing a manuscript. The resources and facilities of Duke’s main library, the William R. Perkins Library, have once again been indispensable to me, as has the institution of Interlibrary Loan. I have also had much help from archives, historical societies, bridge authorities, and departments of transportation in locating information and photographs; the sources of these pictures are credited in the list of illustrations in the back of the book. Indeed, I am indebted to so many librarians, archivists, secretaries, assistants, and volunteers, at Duke and elsewhere, both known to me and anonymous, that I dare not begin to acknowledge them by name, lest I forget one.

I must, however, thank some other individuals by name. My brother, William Petroski, helped me early on to get a closer look at many New York bridges, and my sister, Marianne Petroski, gave me some helpful books. Stephen Petroski, my son and a student engineer, also helped me very early on by collecting essential material from newspaper indexes, and Ian Threlfall, a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering at Duke, later retrieved countless remarkably clear copies of articles from microfilm files. Margot Ammann Durrer kindly provided me with much material relating to her father, including letters and photographs. A host of engineers and friends of engineers have helped me with very useful material and leads, and I would like to thank especially Norman Ball, David Billington, Milton Brumer, Stephen Burges, Jameson Doig, Eugene Fasullo, Steven Fenves, Henry Fischer, Jay Fredrich, Myint Lwin, Louis Miller, W. S. Persons, Allan Ryan, Thomas Sullivan, and Neil Wotherspoon. I also wish to thank my daughter Karen Petroski for her insights into scholarship. Finally, I am as always indebted to Catherine Petroski, my wife, for being my first reader and most constructive critic, and for understanding, at times perhaps even better than I, my writing habits and needs.

Durham, North Carolina
September 1994