JF Ptak Science Books Post 1904
I've long been interested in the hidden, or the obscure, or the secondary, or the non-essential backgrounds and foreground in prints--more so at times than the subject of the print itself. This thinking certainly applies for me nowadays when looking at another engraving of Winchester or another view of Rome or another prosaic cityscape--the main focus of the images are of course beautiful, but since I've seen this stuff so much my eye started wandering around to the small and inconsequential bits in the scene, and found that this is where odd richness might be.
And so on to what is in my mind, at least, an iconic wood engraving of the half-completed* Brooklyn Bridge, showing master mechanic and chief engineer of the project E.F. (Frank) Farrington making his slidy way as the first person to cross between the two spans (on 26 August 1876).
What we see in the background of this print, on the Brooklyn-side tower, is a group of people watching Farrington, and in their midst, two gigantic, ramshackle ladders, straight out of the Renaissance. Farrington was supposed to be showing how safe everything thing was for the workers--27 men died in the construction of the bridge, which given the times and difficulties is tragic but actually not too bad--but I think he simply couldn't resist the impulse of making the dangerous, wind-swept way across the river to the Manhattan side. The ladders don't seem to speak much to security and safety, but I guess that they worked
Another interesting peep into the times is seen in this wood engraving from 1877, showing a crew working on the cables. As much as eyewitnesses claimed that Farrington performed his stunt to exhibit the safety of the cables, looking closely at this print shows the relative danger faced by the workers. The railing around the support car here looks more like a hindrance than a help, seemingly making it easier for a worker to trip on it, and fall into the water 300+ feet below.
Below-knee-level barricades surely does not make for a safety fence--it is very probably anti-safety. That said, if you look closely at the man on the extreme right, he seems to be sitting on the safety cable, leg up, nonchalant, watching the application of the cable. Tempting fate.
And the detail:
I guess though that the most hidden aspect of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge was the identity of the chief and overriding builder: Mrs. Emily Roebling.
It turns out that the original designer for the bridge, John Roebling, was killed early on in an explosion and was replaced by his son, Washington, who in turn (in 1871) was terrifically incapacitated; Washington was 'aided" by his wife Emily (1843-1903), who became the most recognizable spokesperson and sub rosa engineer of record. She was supposed to be assisting Washington, but it was far more so than that. Probably it was an inappropriate time for society in general to believe that a woman was capable of supervising the construction of the world's longest suspension bridge.
"The work which is most likely to become our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge." - Harper's Weekly (1883)
*The bridge was about half-way done, following the construction beginning in 1870 and its opening in 1883.