John Wolfe Barry, an English civil engineer, was born Dec. 7, 1836. He built many bridges in Victorian England, but he is best known for constructing Tower Bridge over the Thames in London. This has to be one of the most iconic bridges in the world. Its design was initially conceived by the London city architect, Horace Jones (who became Sir Horace when his design was accepted), but Jones died suddenly in 1887, as bridge construction had just begun. Barry, already the site engineer, took over the enterprise and saw it to its successful conclusion. Tower Bridge opened in 1894.
Tower Bridge is a bascule bridge, which means the roadway can be raised in the center to allow the passage of tall ships. Designing the bascule element was the reason why Barry was brought into the enterprise in the first place. It also seems to have been Barry’s idea to disguise what is essentially a steel bridge as a stone structure. Like an early American skyscraper, it has a stone skin wrapped around a steel skeleton. Perhaps that is why the bridge is still standing, and still carrying traffic.
In 2011, about fifty large sepia photographs of Tower Bridge under construction came to the attention of historians. They had been thrown out five years earlier, were retrieved by a building caretaker who tried to interest the Tower Bridge Museum in his discovery, without success, so he just kept them under his bed until someone WAS interested, and then the London dailies had a field day. The photos are quite instructive, as most of the images show the steel frame rising, with the stone facade making only a late appearance, so they present a bridge that is not familiar to most of us. We reproduce one of the photographs above (third image), and you can see others, along with an account of the rediscovery of the photographs, at this Daily Mail link.
Actually, several photographs of the Tower Bridge under construction were already available, in a book published in 1894 by Barry and others, The History of the Tower Bridge. We have this book in our History of Science Collection, and the fourth, fifth, and sixth images above are taken from this work. The Daily Mail article reminds us that the terminal scene of the 2009 movie Sherlock Holmes (set in 1890) takes place on the high-span cantilever of Tower Bridge as it was still being constructed. There is a short video of the final scene at this link, with Sherlock (Robert Downey, Jr.) doing battle with Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) some 140 feet above the surface of the Thames, and we include a still from the film, showing Tower Bridge, above (seventh image). It seems that the production designers for the film did their homework well.
The caricature of Barry appeared in Vanity Fair in 1905 (second image).
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to firstname.lastname@example.org.