January 9th marks what would have been the 144th birthday of Joseph Strauss. Born in 1870 in Cincinnati, Ohio, his engineering career was sparked after having to go to his university’s infirmary. Recuperating from the injury he had received playing football, he was inspired by the structure right outside his window, John Roebling’s famed suspension bridge, which was the first of its kind in the US. He carried a fascination with bridges through university and his later career. He was also incredibly ambitious, and in his graduation speech he proposed an idea to build a railway across the Bering Strait.
For the next couple of decades, Strauss worked for a variety of companies, including one he set up himself, building bascule drawbridges. Some are still standing, including the Johnson Street Bridge in Victoria, Canada. Strauss’s main innovation in this field was to use cheap concrete counterweights instead of the more common expensive iron ones. However, all these projects were small compared to his masterpiece, the Golden Gate Bridge.
At the time, it was considered impossible to bridge the channel leading into San Francisco Bay. The deep water would require a span longer than any other then in existence, and the strong winds also provided a challenge. However, the ambitious Strauss believed these problems could be solved, and assembled a team of skilled engineers and builders. By 1937, the bridge was complete and, at 4,200 feet, did indeed have the longest span in the world- a record that would not be surpassed until 1964.
Strauss incorporated many ingenious structural features into the Golden Gate. These include the deck, with its largely open trussed structure that allows the strong winds of the area to easily pass through. The entire structure can compensate for expansion caused by swinging temperatures- the deck can expand up to sixteen feet. This feature also allows the structure to withstand the earthquakes that plague the region, unlike the Bay Bridge on the other side of the city. Credit must also be given to other engineers, like Irving Morrow, who designed the bridge’s towers. These towers were the tallest bridge towers when completed, and their height was key to supporting the long span. The distinctive red/orange color of the bridge made it easy to see in the Bay Area fog, though the US Navy originally wanted it to be yellow with black stripes.
Strauss also introduced effective safety measures, including safety nets below the building sites that saved the lives of tens of workers. Sadly, he died within a year of the bridge’s completion- the stress of the project may have contributed to his demise. However, he could not have left a more impressive legacy, as the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the world’s most iconic structures.
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