Squire Whipple was an American civil engineer, famously known as the ‘Father of Iron Bridge building in America’. He was an original craftsman who started observing the art of construction from his childhood. He was the son of a farmer and developed a keen interest in construction and the materials used for it. After graduation, he acquired training in the construction of canals and railroads and soon made his way to become one of the finest engineers of all time. He encouraged the use of iron as the core material for building bridges instead of wood to increase the stability and strength of the bridge. He popularized the use of science in engineering and modernized the concept of bridge construction through his determined efforts. His patents were the proof of his ability to design and transform his ideas into real world entities. Even today, his ingenuity is enlightening the world as one of the oldest iron bridges built on his patented design is still intact in America. He revolutionized the field of civil engineering through his new breakthroughs in the domain of bridge construction. He marked the beginning of a new era for civil engineers and thus became the ‘Father of Iron Bridge building in America’.
Childhood & Early Life
He was born on September 16, 1804 in Hardwick, Massachusetts to James Whipple, a farmer and his wife Electa Johnson.
His father designed, built and ran a cotton-spinning mill in nearby Greenwich, Massachusetts and therefore, at a young age, he was exposed to construction and materials used in it.
In 1817, his family moved to Orsego County near Cooperstown, New York where he received the best possible common school education available.
After schooling, he attended Hartwick Academy and Fairfield Academy in New York. He completed his graduation in just one year from the Union College in Schenectady, New York.
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In 1830, he started off as a rod-man and leveler on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. He also served as an apprentice working on some other canals and railroads. Along with his apprenticeship, he designed and built mathematical instruments such as transits, engineer’s levels and drafting equipments.
In 1840, he designed and built a weigh lock for weighing canal boats on the Erie Canal in Utica. In the same year, he started his career as a bridge builder by patenting his design of an iron-bridge truss.
He got an opportunity to display his knowledge of construction and engineering when the wooden bridge across the canal at First Street in Utica fell. He was hired to build a bridge by the canal commission.
He suggested his idea of a steady bridge, an iron bridge, to the canal commissioners but they seemed reluctant to do so as they were unsure of its stability and strength. He demonstrated the construction of a similar iron bridge at his own expense and convinced them for the task.
During the next ten years, he demonstrated his civil engineering skills and built several bridges over the Erie Canal and New York and Erie railroad near Newburgh and Binghamton.
In 1852-53, he built a wrought and cast iron bridge over the Albany and Northern railroad. He also built an iron railroad bridge of 146 foot span near Watervliet, New York.
In 1860, he took professional retirement but continued to contribute significantly to civil engineering by designing lift and swing bridges.
In 1872, he designed and patented the first ever vertical lift bridge in America. In 1874, he built a bridge of this design over the Erie Canal in Utica.
He built a weigh lock scale with a capacity of 300 tons in 1841 and it was the largest weighing device in the country at the time for weighing canal boats.
He built the first successful long span trapezoidal railroad bridges on New York Railroads in West Troy and Utica, New York.
One of his notable literary accomplishments was ‘A Work on Bridge Building’ consisting of Two Essays, ‘The One Elementary and General’ and ‘Giving Original Plans and Practical Details for Iron and Wooden Bridges’, which he wrote and published in 1847. It properly analyzed the stresses on bridge trusses, and developed mathematical procedures to account for them that are still useful in construction of bridges.
In 1867-69, ‘Whipple Cast and Wrought Iron Bowstring Truss Bridge’, commonly known as the Normanskill Farm Bridge, was built by Simon de Graff, a Syracuse builder, who copied its design from Whipple’s original bowstring truss design. In 1971 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is currently one of the oldest surviving iron bridges in the country.
Awards & Achievements
After the resurrection of American Society of Civil Engineers, he was the first man to be named an Honorary Member of the Society in 1868.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married W. Anna Case but had no children.
He died on March 15, 1888 at an old age of 84 in Albany, New York and was buried in Albany Rural Cemetery, New York.
He is regarded as the ‘Father of Iron Bridge building in America’ for his innovative ideas and contribution to civil engineering. He is considered the first bridge builder to apply scientific principles to the field and revolutionize the concepts of modern bridge construction.