Today, we wait 90 years for a bridge. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
In 1849 the steamer
Panama sailed out of San Francisco Bay
into the Pacific. My great-grandfather was on it,
and so too was General John Fremont's family.
Fremont had just called the mouth of the bay the
"Golden Gate." The name captured the forbidding
beauty of that great portal to Western America, and
it caught on. When Great Grandpa crossed the bay
again a year later, it was in a steamboat that'd
been named the Golden Gate.
Public demand for a Golden Gate Bridge began as
soon as the gold rush. But it was 70 years before
the city engineer of San Francisco thought
technology was actually up to making such a thing.
In 1917 he turned to Joseph Strauss. The 5-foot
Strauss -- a leading bridge builder -- said he
could build a bridge to hell, if he were given
enough money to do it.
The bridge was finally begun 16 years later. In the
meantime, the railroads had fought it because it
would eliminate the need for many trains. The War
Department had questioned whether it would hurt
navigation. The Depression delayed raising the
35-million-dollar cost. Years were lost in what was
later called the "War of the Professors," as
geologists haggled over the solidity of the floor
of the bay. And all the while Strauss kept changing
the design of the bridge.
He didn't settle on the present design until 1930,
and a bold one it was. Its 4200-foot central span
made it much longer than any suspension bridge
that'd ever been attempted. The suspension cables
were a major problem. Viewed from Berkeley, they
look like a gossamer spider web. But they're 3 feet
in diameter and woven from 25,000 individual
The rule of thumb was that bridges cost one human
life for every million dollars' worth of
construction. Strauss wasn't about to offer 35
human sacrifices for his bridge. He created a
gigantic rope net for his workers. So many people
fell into it and survived that they formed a
"Halfway to Hell Club." Strauss was first to make
his workers wear hard hats. After four years, only
one workman had died. Then a traveling platform
came loose, plunged through the net, and killed
But the Golden Gate Bridge finally opened in 1937.
The tape came down, and 200,000 pedestrians spilled
across the span in the morning fog. Strauss was
worn out -- he lived only another year. But this
diminutive man had made his titanic masterpiece.
He'd come in 1.3 million dollars under the
estimate; and he'd given us one of the most
beautiful things ever made. I only wish my great
grandfather could have seen it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds