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Columbia University Press
bridge, structure
structure built over water or any obstacle or depression to allow the passage of pedestrians or vehicles. See also viaduct.

Early Bridges

In ancient times and among primitive peoples a log was thrown across a stream, or two vines or woven fibrous ropes (the upper for a handhold and the lower for a footwalk) were thrown across, to serve as a bridge. Later, arched structures of stone or brick were used; traces of these, built from 4000 to 2000 , have been found in the E Mediterranean region. The Romans built long, arched spans, many of which are still standing. Bridges built during the Middle Ages usually rested on crude stone arches with heavy piers (intermediate supports) that were a great obstruction to river traffic, and their roadways were often lined with small shops.

The best known early American design is the New England covered bridge, since wood was abundant and cheap, and did not demand trained masons. Colonial American bridge builders were willing to run the risk of rot or fire in exchange for such savings in time and manpower. Beginning with Abraham Darby's bridge at Coalbrookdale in 1779, most bridges began to be built of cast and wrought iron. Robert Stephenson, an English engineer, designed and built a bridge of this type across Menai Strait in North Wales (1850). Another is Victoria Bridge across the St. Lawrence at Montreal. The disadvantage of cast iron for bridges is its low tensile strength.

Modern Bridge Designs

There are six basic modern bridge forms: the beam, the truss, the arch, the cantilever, the cable-stay, and the suspension. A beam bridge is made of long timber, metal, or concrete beams anchored at each end. If the beams are arranged in a lattice, such as a triangle, so that each shares only a portion of the weight on any part of the structure, the result is a truss bridge. An arch bridge has a bowed shape causing the vertical force of the weight it carries to produce a horizontal outward force at its ends. It may be constructed of steel, concrete, or masonry. A cantilever bridge is formed by self-supporting arms anchored at and projecting toward one another from the ends; they meet in the middle of the span where they are connected together or support a third member. In a cable-stayed bridge, the roadway is supported by cables attached directly to the supporting tower or towers. This differs from a suspension bridge, where the roadway is suspended from vertical cables that are in turn attached to two or more main cables. These main cables hang from two towers and have their ends anchored in bedrock or concrete.

The modern era of bridge building began with the development of the Bessemer process for converting cast iron into steel. It became possible to design framed structures with greater ease and flexibility. Single-piece, rolled steel beams can support spans of 50 to 100 ft (15—30 m), depending on the load. Larger, built-up beams are made for longer spans; a steel box-beam bridge with an 850-ft (260-m) span crosses the Rhine at Cologne.

Truss, Arch, and Cantilever Bridges

The truss can span even greater distances and carry heavy loads; it is therefore commonly used for railroad bridges. A large truss span like that over the Columbia River at Astoria, Oreg., can extend to 1,232 ft (376 m). If the truss is shaped into an arch, even longer bridges are possible; the Bayonne Bridge between New York and New Jersey, the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia, and the New River Bridge in West Virginia are the longest steel arch bridges, at 1,675 ft (510 m), 1,670 ft (509 m), and 1,700 ft (518 m), respectively. Concrete arch bridges tend to be somewhat smaller, the largest being the Krk Bridge in Croatia and the Gladesville Bridge across the Parramatta River at Sidney, Australia, at 1,280 ft (390 m) and 1,000 ft (305 m), respectively; the longest concrete arch bridge in the United States is the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge in Franklin, Tenn., at 582 ft (177 m). The cantilever, however, is more common for spans of such lengths. The cantilevered Forth Bridge (1890) in Scotland was the first major structure built entirely of steel, the material that made possible its two record-setting spans of 1,710 ft (521 m) each. They remained the longest in existence until 1917, when the St. Lawrence River at Quebec Bridge was built; it has an 1,800-ft (549-m) span. The longest cantilever bridge in the United States is the Commodore John Barry Bridge in Chester, Penn., which has an 1,644 ft (501 m) span.

Cable-Stayed, Suspension, and Combination Bridges

The cable-stayed bridge is the most modern type, coming into prominence during the 1950s. The longest is the Tatara Bridge in Ehime, Japan, which has a 2,920 ft (890 m) span. The Ponte de Normandie in Le Havre, France, spans 2,808 ft (856 m); the Second Yangtze Bridge in Nanjing, China, spans 2,060 ft (628 m); and the Third Yangtze Bridge in Wuhan, China, spans 2,028 ft (618 m). The longest cable-stayed bridge in the United States is the Dame Point Bridge in Jacksonville, Fla., which has a span of 1,300 ft (396 m).

The suspension bridge is used for the longest spans. The earliest suspension bridges built in America were those constructed by the American builder James Finley. The design of suspension bridges advanced when J. A. Roebling, a German-born engineer who emigrated to the United States, developed the use of wire cables and stiffening trusses. His first completed suspension bridge spanned the Niagara River in 1854. He also designed the Brooklyn Bridge across the East River (completed 1883), which was the world's longest suspension bridge at the time of its construction, having a main span of 1,595.5 ft (487 m).

Today the longest spans in the world are suspended. The longest main spans are the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, Hyogo, Japan, 6,529 ft (1,990 m); Izmit Bay Bridge, Marmara Sea, Turkey, 5,472 ft (1,668 m); Store Bælt Bridge, Denmark, 5,328 ft (1,624 m); Humber River Bridge, Hull, England, 4,626 ft (1410 m); Tsing Ma Bridge, Hong Kong, 4,518 ft (1,377 m); Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, New York City, 4,260 ft (1,298 m); Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, 4,200 ft (1,280 m); Hoga Kusten (or High Coast) Bridge, Västernörrland, Sweden, 3,969 ft (1,210 m); Mackinac Straits Bridge, Mich., 3,800 ft (1,158 m); Minami Bisan-Seto Bridge, Japan, 3,668 ft (1,118 m); Second Bosporus Bridge, İstanbul, Turkey, 3,576 ft (1,090 m); First Bosporus Bridge, İstanbul, Turkey, 3,524 ft (1,074 m); and George Washington Bridge, New York City, 3,500 ft (1,067 m).

Combination spans are often used to bridge even longer stretches of water. The San Francisco—Oakland Bay Bridge, noted for its three long spans, of which two are suspension spans and the third a cantilever, has a total length of 8.25 mi (13.2 km). The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel has two 1-mi (1.6-km) tunnels along its 17.6-mi (28.2-km) length, and the 8-mi (12.9-km) Confederation Bridge, linking Prince Edward Island to the Canadian mainland, consists of three bridges. The longest combination spans are the twin Lake Ponchartrain Causeways near New Orleans, Louisiana, whose parallel roadways stretch nearly 24 mi (38 km).

Movable Bridges

Movable bridges are generally constructed over waterways where it is impossible or prohibitive to build a fixed bridge high enough for water traffic to pass under it. The most common types of movable bridge are the lifting, bascule, and swing bridges. The lifting bridge, or lift bridge, consists of a rigid frame carrying the road and resting abutments, over each of which rises a steel-frame tower. The center span, which in existing bridges is as long as 585 ft (178 m), is hoisted vertically. The bascule bridge follows the principle of the ancient drawbridge. It may be in one span or in two halves meeting at the center. It consists of a rigid structure mounted at the abutment on a horizontal shaft, about which it swings in a vertical arc. The lower center span of the famous Tower Bridge in London is of the double-leaf bascule type. Because of the need for large counterweights and the stress on hoisting machinery, bascule bridge spans are limited to about 250 ft (75 m). The swing bridge is usually mounted on a pier in midstream and swung parallel to the stream to allow water passage.

Military Bridges

In wartime, where the means of crossing a stream or river is lacking or a bridge has been destroyed by the enemy, the military bridge plays a vital role. Standard types of military bridges include the trestle, built on the spot by the engineering corps from any available material, and the floating bridge made with portable pontoons.


See D. Plowden, The Spans of North America (1984); H. Petroski, Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America (1995); J. Dupré and F. O. Geary, Bridges: A History of the World's Most Famous and Important Spans (1996); S. A. Ostrow, Bridges (1997); F. Gottemoeller, Bridgescape: The Art of Designing Bridges (1998); K. Willard, Bridges: Designing the Future (1999). See also bibliographies for articles on individual bridges.