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The Golden Gate Bridge Designers

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Golden Gate Bridge is an iconic structure, but who built it? In this lesson, we're going to explore the history and figures associated with completing one of the world's favorite bridges.

Building the Golden Gate Bridge

Here's an experiment to try: go outside, find ten random people and ask them to list the five most iconic structures in the United States. Chances are most of them will quickly walk away from you, but those who answer are likely to mention the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, a few things from their home state, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Completed in 1937, this world-renowned art deco suspension bridge spans 4,200 feet over the 400-foot-deep Golden Gate Strait. It was one of the most incredible engineering achievements of the era and has been an inspiration ever since. But who built it? Well, some structures are simply too big for any one person to tackle.

It Takes a Team

The man most responsible for the Golden Gate Bridge was Joseph Strauss. He was the one tasked to take on the incredible challenge of building a difficult structure in an environment known for high winds, dense fogs, and of course, earthquakes.

Strauss was smart enough to know that a project like this required many minds, and he surrounded himself with some of the most influential engineers and designers of the 20th century. Here's a list of the essential advisors in Strauss' impressive team:

Design Engineer: Charles Ellis

Resident Engineer: Russell Cone

Assistant Engineers: Charles Clarahan, Jr., Dwight Wetherell

Consulting Traffic Engineer: Syndey Taylor, Jr.

Consulting Architect: Irving Morrow

Consulting Geologists: Andrew Lawson, Allen Sedgwick

Advisory Board of Engineers: Othmar Ammann, Charles Derleth, Jr., Leon Moisseiff

Strauss clearly knew how to attract talent to his side. All of these men (except Ellis) are listed on the dedication plaque of the Golden Gate Bridge to this day. We're not going to go over the contributions of each of these individuals (that's a side project for your own time) but will focus on three people who really stand out.

The dedication plaque of the Golden Gate Bridge
Bridge Plaque

Joseph Strauss

First, let's start with Strauss himself. Joseph Strauss was born in 1870 to a highly artistic family in Cincinnati. Poetry, engineering, and idealism were always closely entwined for him. After college, he started moving up the ranks in Chicago's engineering firms. By the time the War Department was sending out national applications for proposals to build an ambitious bridge, Strauss was amongst the most respected engineers in the country, particularly for his vast portfolio of drawbridges.

Memorial statue of Joseph Strauss at the bridge
Strauss Statue

Strauss' original design for the Golden Gate Bridge was a combination suspension and cantilever-type structure. It was his first bridge of such a kind, and he quickly found other minds to help work out engineering problems. At some point between 1929 and 1930, he changed the bridge into a pure suspension bridge, which is what it is today.

Construction took a toll on Joseph Strauss. He was a brilliant engineer and successful in bringing top minds together, but was also obsessed with claiming credit for the structure and alienated many people (including his wife) along the way. Nevertheless, the bridge was completed in 1937, an event for which he composed a poem. Exhausted, he died soon after.

Charles Alton Ellis

The one man not credited on the bridge's plaque was also amongst the most important in its success. Charles Ellis was a professor of engineering who had helped calculate the various stresses on subway tunnels under the Hudson River.

Discovered by Strauss in 1922, Ellis spent months on the technical details of the bridge, working closely with engineer Leon Moisseiff, builder of the Manhattan Bridge. Together, Ellis and Moisseiff produced formula after formula, grindingly discovering the precise calculations needed to build a bridge of the necessary dimensions, stability, and resistance. Although no single person did more engineering work on the bridge than Ellis, he was fired from the project in 1931. Strauss, not understanding the true complexity of the suspension bridge, thought Ellis was wasting time and money with excessive calculations. It's also possible he worried that Ellis would get more praise than him once the bridge was completed. As a result, Ellis was not recognized when the bridge opened, and in fact, would not receive his due credit until after his death.

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