View of the St. Johns Bridge, crossing the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon; designed by David Steinman, opened in 1931 (Wikimedia commons)

View of the St. Johns Bridge, crossing the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon; designed by David Steinman, opened in 1931 (Wikimedia commons)

David B. Steinman

JUNE 11, 2021

Scientist of the Day - David B. Steinman

David Barnard Steinman, an American civil engineer, was born June 11, 1886. Steinman is one of a select number of great American bridge designers, high on a list that would include Charles Ellis (Golden Gate Bridge); John, Washington, and Emily Warren Roebling (Brooklyn Bridge); James Buchanan Eads (St Louis Bridge); and if we include Americanized Europeans, Othnar Ammann (Bayonne Bridge and George Washington Bridge), Gustav Lindenthal (Hell Gate Bridge), and Ralph Modjeski (Ben Franklin bridge and Oakland Bay Bridge). Steinman's bridges are not quite so well known as the ones listed, because many of them are outside the United States, but several of his American bridges are worth noting, especially our first one.

The St. Johns Bridge in Portland, Oregon, over the Willamette River, was completed in 1931 (this was the same year as the George Washington Bridge, 5 years before the Oakland Bay bridge, and 6 years before the Golden Gate). Some people don't like this bridge, because of its Neo-Gothic towers, but I think it is terrific, distinctive in its sea-green paint, which it has worn from the beginning. This was Steinman’s favorite bridge, and my favorite Steinmann bridge as well (first, second, and third images).

We show three views of the St. John’s Bridge, because no bridge reveals its special beauty from just one vantage point. There are many other wonderful photos of the bridge on photosites such as Flickr, but most of the photos there are rights-protected, which is too bad, because that means I cannot show them here.  But I can include a link, and I do so in order that you may see one of my favorites, a view of the roadbed between the two Gothic towers at sunrise.  You may see it here.

Steinman grew up under the Brooklyn Bridge; he said being so often in its shadow inspired him to become a bridge engineer.  He got his chance to contribute to the longevity of one of New York’s oldest suspension bridges (it opened in 1883), when he was awarded the contract to upgrade the Brooklyn Bridge and double its car-carrying capacity, by expanding the decks from two to three lanes.  This was accomplished from 1950 to 1954, one lane at a time, while the bridge continued to carry traffic.  It was not the end of problems for the bridge, but it provided another 50 years of life until a truly major overhaul was required, which began in 2010 and is still underway.

One of Steinman's last bridges was the Mackinac Bridge, completed in 1957, just three years before his death, which connects lower Michigan to the Upper Peninsula (fifth, sixth, and seventh images). This bridge looks odd in most photographs, because it is over 5 miles long, and to get the entire span in a frame, one has to use a very long lens, producing extreme foreshortening. As a result, the center span rears up in an unsightly hump in such photographs. But it doesn’t look anything like this to the human eye, as we see in both of the long views I have included here. The towers are quite attractive as well, even if the Neo-Gothic style has sadly been left behind (seventh image).

There is a surprising dearth of good photographs of Steinman.  The most famous one shows him playfully standing on the cables of the Brooklyn bridge, but only tiny versions see to be available – you can see one of those snapshots here. There are several photos that show him standing in front of the towers of the St. Johns or Mackinac bridges, but with his fedora and business suit, he hardly makes for an arresting figure, and you can barely make out his features.  Here is one of those.  So we settled on a grainy, posed, photo-portrait, where you can at least see Steinman’s face and glimpse something of his genial personality (fourth image, above).

Unusual among bridge engineers, Steinman was a prolific writer on his craft; we have a dozen books by him in the Library, and several biographies as well; you can scroll through the bibliographic record here, if you are interested.  Steinman also wrote poetry late in life, publishing a volume of poems in 1955, to some acclaim.  Even though his poems tend to focus on bridges, one of the Library’s specialties, the poem volume has regrettably not yet made its way into our collections.  It would have been nice to close with a Steinman verse.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor emeritus, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to