Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Historian

Nor is there any such creature as a self-made man or woman. We love that expression, we Americans. But every one who’s ever lived has been affected, changed, shaped, helped, hindered by other people. We all know, in our own lives, who those people are who’ve opened a window, given us an idea, given us encouragement, given us a sense of direction, self-approval, self-worth, or who have straightened us out when we were on the wrong path. Most often they have been parents. Almost as often they have been teachers. Stop and think about those teachers who changed your life, maybe with one sentence, maybe with one lecture…

I met David McCullough in 1972, I believe, sometime near the publication of The Great Bridge. He typically speaks to large audiences these days, but on that day there were maybe eight of us, members of the student/faculty Library Advisory Committee at RPI. He spoke to us about Washington Roebling and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Washington Roebling was the son of John Roebling, a designer of suspension bridges and the founder of a company that made “wire rope,” the cables, in other words, that were necessary to the construction of such bridges. John Roebling had began the design and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge when he died, in 1869, of tetanus contracted after an injury during the construction; his foot had been crushed between a ferry and the dock.

The task now fell to his son Washington, who produced the final bridge design and who oversaw the construction until “caisson disease,” which we now call “decompression sickness” or “the bends” crippled him and more or less confined him to his bedroom. His wife Emily then took over day-to-day oversight of the construction, conveying her husband’s orders to the construction site. And just imagine the problems that this arrangement created.

Washington Roebling was a graduate of RPI, as were a number of his assistants. This group of civil engineers then fanned out across the country and were in large measure responsible for “the golden age of bridge building” in the U.S. One of the perennial favorites at RPI was the Tacoma Narrow Bridge, old “Galloping Gertie” which ran afoul of aerodynamics and mechanical resonance to fall down when a constant wind of the right speed hit it. It wasn’t designed by an RPI alum, but it was a ringer for the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, which was. The Tacoma Incident is the source of one of my favorite catch phrases: “Worrying about things I haven’t thought of yet.” No one expected aerodynamics to be important to bridge design, at least not until a bridge fell down.

Some of Washington Roebling’s papers went to Rutgers, but a sizable number of them became the Roebling Collection at RPI. McCullough came to RPI to research on his book. He found the Roebling Collection in cardboard boxes, stacked in a closet in the library. Judging by what SF author John Barnes says about such matters, RPI was doing fairly well by just not throwing it all away.

Now, of course, the Roebling Collection is a big deal, housed in the special documents section of a nice new library (okay, it was new when I left, so it’s actually now over 30 years old). And David McCullough is a large reason for that.

We did a big review of The Great Bridge in the Rensselaer Engineer, pulling in a bunch of material from the Roebling Collection that didn’t even make McCullough’s book. I don’t recall if the alternate “minaret style” bridge tower drawing is one of those, but we ran a drawing of the full bridge across the top of the multi-page article, emphasizing just how long that sucker is.

Needless to say, McCullough’s talk was absolutely riveting. Everyone is now familiar with his voice and style from all these years of PBS narration, but imagine what it was like to get it fresh, live, without warning. And McCullough is an historian’s historian. He loves his subjects, and he loves the minutia of scholarly research. That LAC talk was probably a big reason why I once spent a week reading an entire year’s worth of newspapers from 1911 New York. It’s impossible to convey the feeling unless you’ve done it, but McCullough manages to communicate the fascination of it.

I seriously doubt that David McCullough would remember me at all, though he might remember having given a talk at RPI about The Bridge and the source material that helped him tell its tale. That’s the way it should be, after all. For that matter, I expect that he would be pleased to know that, however much I remember him and his talk, I remember more about what he said, and I then took the time to look at the Roebling Collection on my own, and to direct others’ attention to it, because the history is more important than the historian, even a very good and successful one.

There’s a line in one of the letters written by John Adams where he’s telling his wife Abigail at home, ‘We can’t guarantee success in this war, but we can do something better. We can deserve it.’ Think how different that is from the attitude today when all that matters is success, being number one, getting ahead, getting to the top. However you betray or gouge or claw or do whatever awful thing is immaterial if you get to the top…

We walk around everyday, everyone of us, quoting Shakespeare, Cervantes, Pope. We don’t know it, but we are, all the time. We think this is our way of speaking. It isn’t our way of speaking – it’s what we have been given. The laws we live by, the freedoms we enjoy, the institutions that we take for granted – as we should never take for granted – are all the work of other people who went before us. And to be indifferent to that isn’t just to be ignorant, it’s to be rude. And ingratitude is a shabby failing.

All quotes from David McCullough.

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