John August Roebling was a brilliant engineer, inventor and entrepreneur. He designed bridges, buildings and machines, kept his own financial journals, and in his spare time studied and wrote about science and philosophy and played the violin and piano. In his lifetime he became the world’s greatest suspension bridge engineer and started a manufacturing business that prospered through four generations.
He was born Johann August Röbling in 1806, into a middle-class family in Mülhausen, Prussia — now part of Germany. His father was a tobacco merchant, but Johann received an excellent education partly as a result of reforms that followed Napoleon’s conquest of Prussia in 1806. He learned French and drafting at the Mülhausen grammar school, and then studied with a prominent mathematician. At the Royal Building Academy in Berlin, he studied architecture and engineering and became fascinated with suspension bridges. During his required three years of public service building roads, he proposed building some, but state officials rejected his plans.
Seeking better opportunities, Johann immigrated to America at age 25 with his brother Carl and other Germans. They settled in western Pennsylvania and founded a farming village they called Saxonburg. Johann married the village tailor’s daughter, Johanna Herting, in 1836. She gave birth to Washington Augustus Roebling in 1837, and Johann became an American citizen that year with the Anglicized name John A. Roebling.
John started doing engineering work for the Pennsylvania Canal system, which led to a job surveying for a railroad route over the Allegheny Mountains. When he saw the limitations of the hemp ropes that were used to haul canal boats on inclined planes over the mountains, he made an experimental rope of twisted wires, a technique he read about in an article by a German mine supervisor. He installed this rope in 1841 and its success launched the wire rope manufacturing business that made him rich.
In 1844 he had his first chance to build a suspension bridge in Pittsburgh, and its success launched his bridge engineering career, which made him famous but eventually cost him his life. At his death in 1869, John left his wire rope business to his four sons, Washington, Ferdinand, Charles and Edmund. He left his other assets equally to all his children including his three daughters, Laura, Elvira, and Josephine, and to his second wife, Lucia Cooper Roebling.