Monday, June 11, 2018

Prolific and World Famous Bridge Designer David Steinman [otd 06/11]

D. B. Steinman.
Boston College collections.
David Barnard Steinman, considered one of the greatest bridge designers of all time, was born June 11, 1886 in New York City. He grew up almost literally in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, which turned his thoughts in that direction. The first in his family to attend college, he received a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1911.

Even before the doctorate was finished, the University of Idaho hired Steinman as a civil engineering instructor. A technical publisher later issued his doctoral dissertation as a book that became a must-have text among professionals of the day.

Steinman proved to be an enthusiastic and popular teacher. He handled, at his request, a heavy teaching load of engineering courses. But not content with that, Steinman also organized and taught the first classes in architecture offered by the University. Remarkably, he attained full professor status before he moved on after just four years.

He actually executed his first bridge design while in Idaho. Limited to logs for material and the Boy Scout troop he led as Scoutmaster for a construction crew, Steinman developed innovative ways to complete the design anyway. Beyond that and his teaching, he found time to lead an extensive program of campus improvements.

However, although he enjoyed teaching, a relatively new, little-known university offered too little scope for someone of Steiman's genius and drive. In 1914, he took a job in New York City with one of the leading bridge designers of the era. After a brief period with another well-known designer, Steinman started his own engineering firm in 1920. Soon, he and another designer formed a partnership that would work together for a quarter century.

Entire books have been written about the many bridges (over 400) Steinman and his partner designed and built, the innovations he devised, and the string of awards he won. Some of the projects they tackled were considered almost impossible, and many required new designs and approaches.

One example was the Waldo-Hancock Bridge across the Penobscot River in Maine, completed in 1931. The historian for the Historic American Engineering Record program wrote that, “Technologically, the Waldo–Hancock Bridge represented a number of firsts.”

It was one of the first two in the United States to use pre-stressed cabling, which reduced the installation and adjustment time. Also, for the first time, parts were pre-marked as to where they were to be installed – another significant cost savings. The bridge was also the first to include a tower truss type that would later be used in the Golden Gate Bridge.

Like engineers worldwide, Steinman was shocked by the wind-caused collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940. He went on to make major contributions to our knowledge of bridge aerodynamics.
Mackinac Bridge.
Wikipedia Commons, submitted by “Jeffness” in April 2007.

Steinman considered the Mackinac Bridge his "crowning achievement." The span, which connects the bulk of Michigan to its upper peninsula, held the record as the longest suspension bridge in the world for forty years. It's still the longest in the Western Hemisphere.

While Idaho could hold him for only four years, the University can point with pride to a remarkable number of his students who went on to make important engineering contributions. One of his students became Chief Engineer for the Hoover Dam project. Another worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority and consulted with Israeli officials on water projects for the Jordan River.

Steinman was working on a design to bridge the Strait of Messina, to connect Sicily to the Italian "boot," when he died in August 1960.
References: [Brit]
Richard J. Beck, Famous Idahoans, Williams Printing, (© Richard J. Beck, 1989).
Katherine Larson Farnham, Waldo-Hancock Bridge, HAER No. ME-65. Historic American Engineering Record, National Park Service, Washington, D. C. (November 1999).
Rafe Gibbs, Beacon for Mountain and Plain: Story of the University of Idaho, The Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho (© The Regents of the University of Idaho, 1962).
Richard G. Weingardt, Engineering Legends: Great American Civil Engineers, American Society of Civil Engineers (August 1, 2005).

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