Chief Engineer

Chief Engineer : Washington Roebling, the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

3.98 (55 ratings by Goodreads)
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The first full biography of a crucial figure in the American story--Washington Roebling, builder of the Brooklyn Bridge.

"I know that nothing can be done perfectly at the first trial; I also know that each day brings its little quota of experiences, which with honest intentions, will lead to perfection after a while." --Washington Roebling

His father conceived of the Brooklyn Bridge, but after John Roebling's sudden death, Washington Roebling built what has become one of American's most iconic structures--as much a part of New York as the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building. Yet, as recognizable as the bridge is, its builder is too often forgotten--and his life is of interest far beyond his chosen field. It is the story of immigrants, of the frontier, of the greatest crisis in American history, and of the making of the modern world.

Forty years after the publication of The Great Bridge, David McCullough's classic chronicle of how the East River was spanned, Erica Wagner has written a fascinating biography of one of America's most distinguished engineers, a man whose long life was a model of courage in the face of extraordinary adversity. Chief Engineer is enriched by Roebling's own eloquent voice, unveiled in his recently-discovered memoir that was previously thought lost to history.

The memoir reveals that his father, John-a renowned engineer who made his life in America after humble beginnings in Germany-was a tyrannical presence in Washington's life, so his own adoption of that career was hard won. A young man when the Civil War broke out, Washington joined the Union Army, building bridges that carried soldiers across rivers and seeing action in many pivotal battles, from Antietam to Gettysburg-aspects of his life never before fully brought to light. Safely returned, he married the remarkable Emily Warren Roebling, who would play a crucial role in the construction of the unprecedented Brooklyn Bridge. It would be Washington Roebling's grandest achievement-but by no means the only one.

Elegantly written with a compelling narrative sweep, Chief Engineer will introduce Washington Roebling and his era to a new generation of readers.
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Product details

  • Hardback | 384 pages
  • 163 x 241 x 30mm | 680g
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • 1620400510
  • 9781620400517
  • 372,946

Review quote

"Ms. Wagner's writing is graceful, even evocative, conveying a mellow admiration of Washington Roebling that suits the man . . . A welcome tribute to the persistence, precision and humanity of Washington Roebling and a love-song for the mighty New York bridge he built." - Wall Street Journal

"A masterful psychological study about duty and drive." - The Economist, "Books of the Year 2017"

"Compelling and elegant . . . [an] exploration of the life of Washington Roebling, the engineer whose energy and ideas got the Brooklyn Bridge built . . . the story not just of two engineers, father and son, but also of a son who survived treatment that, as he wrote in a private memoir at the end of the 19th century, could have led to his death . . . [a] powerful book." - The Guardian

"A masterful work of research, revelation and gripping narrative. It brings to pulsating life 19th-century New York and New Jersey and manages to be moving, too." - New Statesman, "Books of the Year"

"The impressive career of [Washington Roebling] is well told in Erica Wagner's captivating new book." - New York Post

"[An] engaging new biography . . . [a] detailed portrait of a sensitive and tormented man." - New York Times Book Review

"In this engrossing biography. . . Wagner writes detailed, lucid descriptions of the technological advances that made the bridge possible. . . . Wagner grounds her fine study of the human side of industrial progress in patient devotion to science and craft." - Publishers Weekly

"With contemporary notes, clippings, and letters, too, [Chief Engineer] makes a fascinating tale . . . A sturdy, illuminating biography." - Kirkus Reviews

"A well-judged and well-written portrait." - Booklist

"As we learn from Chief Engineer, Erica Wagner's highly original biography of Washington Roebling, the little-remembered and rather strange man who built it, the feat of raising such a bridge took over a dozen years of his life--and nearly killed him . . . Chief Engineer also sheds light on matters beyond engineering . . . Where she unquestionably succeeds is in bringing to life, and very probably bringing to the public's attention for the first time in generations, the name--and rather peculiar life--of a man who deserves his place on the top tier of the pantheon of engineers." **** - The Sunday Telegraph

"Chief Engineer was made possible by the discovery of an unpublished memoir at Rutgers University and Wagner has mined it well. She tells the story with the thoroughness of Roebling's calculations: the book is as robust in structure and fine in detail as the bridge itself and, like its subject, unlikely to be bettered. It is immaculately researched, meticulously written but exciting and evocative too." - Spectator

"In her bravura book about its creation . . . The magnificent book by Wagner, an NS contributing writer, focuses on the two men responsible for building the edifice: John A Roebling and his patriotically named son Washington." - New Statesman

"Powerful." - The Observer

"Warm, meticulous . . . Chief Engineer makes a solid case for Washington as a great American hero." - Ada Calhoun, Times Literary Supplement

"Erica Wagner honours Washington with a fine, sympathetic biography." - Literary Review

"The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the greatest engineering marvels of all time, as well as a great work of public art. Its chief engineer is equally compelling and Erica Wagner brings him and his complicated world to life." - Ken Burns, filmmaker, "Brooklyn Bridge" and "The Civil War"

"In this keenly observed and deeply felt biography, Erica Wagner brings Washington Roebling to life, examining both the rigorous mathematics and the complex psychology involved in envisioning one of mankind's greatest built monuments. The narrative is intensely absorbing, the prose tremendously clear, and the characters genuinely unforgettable. This is history of the first order." - Andrew Solomon, author of THE NOONDAY DEMON and FAR FROM THE TREE

"Erica Wagner's account of Washington Roebling, the man who built America's most famous bridge, is a classic, as lovingly and meticulously constructed as the bridge itself. It is a triumph of a book." - Simon Winchester, author of PACIFIC and WHEN THE EARTH SHAKES

"Erica Wagner has given us a captivating and highly readable portrait of Washington Roebling, chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge. Her book should put to rest once and for all in the general reader's mind any confusion between the relative contributions of Washington and those of his father, John, to that monumental engineering project." - Henry Petroski, Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and Professor of History, Duke University; author of ENGINEERS OF DREAMS
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About Erica Wagner

American writer and critic Erica Wagner was the literary editor of the London Times for seventeen years and is now a contributing writer for the New Statesman and consulting literary editor for Harper's Bazaar. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Economist, the Financial Times, and the New York Times, among others. She is the author of Ariel's Gift, Seizure, and the short story collection Gravity; she is the editor of First Light: A Celebration of Alan Garner. She was the recipient of the Eccles British Library Writer's Award in 2014, and she is a lecturer in creative writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. She lives in London with her husband and son.
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Rating details

55 ratings
3.98 out of 5 stars
5 35% (19)
4 42% (23)
3 13% (7)
2 9% (5)
1 2% (1)
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