Meet Emily Warren Roebling (1843 – 1903). This Woman You Should Know never expected to oversee one of the greatest engineering triumphs in history, but she rose to the challenge anyway. Roebling’s father-in-law, John Roebling, conceived of and planned the Brooklyn Bridge, the largest suspension bridge in the world up to that point (main span of 1,595.5 feet). He designed it to connect the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn by spanning New York City’s East River.
As the project was getting under way, John died of tetanus, leaving his son – Emily’s husband, Washington Roebling – to take over as chief engineer on the project. Washington, however, got decompressions sickness from descending deep under the river’s surface into the bridge’s caissons and was left partially paralyzed and bed-ridden by 1872.
For the next eleven years, Emily took over for him as the “first woman field engineer”. She would go onsite daily to give his orders to the crew, communicating with assistant engineers, funders, and the press, keeping records, and answering mail. To better manage the project, she studied strength of material, street analysis, cable construction, and other engineering issues.
Although her title was “assistant to the chief engineer,” many thought the real engineering prowess behind the bridge was Emily’s, not her husband’s. As David McCullough wrote in his book, The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge…
“By and by it was common gossip that hers was the great mind behind the great work and that this, the most monumental engineering triumph of the age, was actually the doing of a woman, which as a general proposition was taken in some quarters to be both preposterous and calamitous. In truth, she had by then a thorough grasp of the engineering involved.”
Under Emily’s fearless leadership, the Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883 and dedicated by President Chester Alan Arthur and New York Gov. Grover Cleveland on May 24 of that year.
More than 130 years later, it is one of the oldest suspension bridges in the United States and still stands as strong and as majestically as ever.