624: Engineers of Dreams by Henry Petroski

by Gerard


624.20973: Petroski, Henry. Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America. New York: Vintage, 1996. 398 pp. ISBN 0-679-43939-0.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 600: Technology
  • 620: Engineering and applied operations
  • 624: Civil engineering
  • 624.2: Bridges
  • +0973: United States

Many of the major cities in the U.S. got their start as big port cities. Ships could sail in, deposit goods, and flood the local economy with raw materials and other goods. They were ports because a bay or river brought the ship. And because there was water, there was a need for bridges. Bridges as an architectural or engineering feature have been around since the Romans, but new materials in the 19th century allowed for better, stronger, longer bridges to be built. In the United States, there are several iconic bridges—The Golden Gate Bridge, The Brooklyn Bridge, The George Washington Bridge—whose conception and completion are due in large part to the engineers who first thought them up. Henry Petroski’s Engineers of Dreams is an ode to these thinkers and builders, the men who decided to cross a river and leave their mark on the American landscape.

Petroski’s book covers the lives and works of five civil engineers—James B. Eads, Theodore Cooper, Gustav Lindenthal, Othmar Ammann, and David B. Steinman—who created many of the great bridges of America. Their biographies tell the tale of an America looking to grow by leaps and bounds. There are times when the new bridges collapsed or other tragedies struck, but in the end, the bridges were built and the landscape was connected in new ways. There is a great deal of engineering history here, but the biographies are a tad formulaic. To be fair, though, I went in for the engineering info. As an added bonus, there are a good number of structural photographs and design illustrations to go along with the text. Petroski is clearly passionate this subject and this history reads rather briskly for a treatise on structural design. All in all, an excellent book on the history of American bridge design.