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  • You are here:ICE

Viewpoint | Pioneering bridge design

An English-style landscape garden in northern Germany is an improbable place to find surviving early examples of iron truss bridges.

Ice portraits chrimes cropped

Ice portraits chrimes cropped

Mike Chrimes

Yet the Georgengarten in Hanover features two lenticular truss bridges designed by Georg Ludwig Friedrich Laves (1788-1864).

Laves was the most significant architect, town planner and civil engineer working in Hanover when it was still ruled by the British monarchy.

While the lenticular truss form had been used by George Stephenson for his Gaunless wrought iron bridge on the Stockton and Darlington Railway, Laves was probably influenced by the French engineer Prosper Debia, who published a timber design in 1829. Laves designed a 33m span in timber to cross the city moat between 1834 and 1835, and then developed the truss in iron between 1837 and 1840.

Unsurprisingly, given the close links between the two states, Laves applied for an English patent and details of his designs were reported in London. Perhaps 40 bridges were built to his system. A short span bridge of this type was built for the London & Birmingham Railway, and it would be interesting to know whether Robert Stephenson was aware of Laves’ work, or indeed Brunel when he developed his Saltash design.

Laves was a member of the Royal Institution of British Architects, but does not seem to have joined the ICE. If he had, his work would have been eligible for nomination for ICE200’s “Invisible heroes” campaign. This will identify the 200 projects and members of the Institution that shaped the world and individual members have nominated nearly 500 projects and engineers.

In contrast to Laves, two obvious contenders for a mention, Thomas Telford and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, were the subject of recent books.  Julian Glover’s Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain was Radio 4’s Book of the Week earlier this year, and does a great job of bringing Telford’s life and work to the attention of the 21st century public.

The Spanish civil engineer Miguel Aguilo Alonso’s latest book on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, La construccion del paisaje de Sydney, is testimony that this bridge, designed nearly a century ago, is still a global icon for civil engineering. It was the result of an at times fractious collaboration between ICE members in Australia and the UK and, like Telford’s works, has received an ICE200 nomination.

The ICE200 selection is currently being finalised by a group chaired by past president Gordon Masterton. Nominations have ranged from mega-projects like the Forth Crossings to small projects vital to local communities like lifeboat stations. The top 200 nominations will be published in a book and will form the basis for a lecture series, to be organised by the ICE’s national and international regions. It will enable the public to understand the positive impacts of civil engineering and how it transforms their lives.

● Mike Chrimes is an engineering historian

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