Engineer (by Default) Emily Warren Roebling

Brooklyn bridge engineer

Emily Warren Roebling (September 23, 1843 – February 28, 1903) is known for her contribution to the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge after her husband Washington Roebling developed caisson disease (a.k.a. decompression disease). Her husband was a civil engineer and the chief engineer during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Emily Roebling

Engineer (by Default) Emily Warren Roebling: Early Life

Emily was born to Sylvanus and Phebe Warren at Cold Spring, New York, on September 23, 1843. She was the second youngest of twelve children. Emily’s interest in pursuing education was supported by her older brother Gouverneur K. Warren. The two siblings always held a close relationship. She attended school at the Georgetown Visitation Academy in Washington DC.

In 1864, during the American Civil War, Emily visited her brother, who was commanding the Fifth Army Corps (a.k.a. V Corps), at his headquarters. At a solider’s ball that she attended during the visit, she became acquainted with Washington Roebling, the son of Brooklyn Bridge designer John A. Roebling, who was a civil engineer serving on Gouverneur Warren’s staff. Emily and Washington married in a dual wedding ceremony (alongside another Warren sibling) in Cold Spring on January 18, 1865.

As John Roebling was starting his preliminary work on the Brooklyn Bridge, the newlyweds went to Europe to study the use of caissons for the bridge. In November 1867, Emily gave birth to the couple’s only child, John A. Roebling II, while living in Germany.

Engineer (by Default) Emily Warren Roebling: Brooklyn Bridge

On their return from their European studies, Washington’s father died of tetanus following an accident at the bridge site, and Washington took charge of the Brooklyn Bridge’s construction as chief engineer.  As he immersed himself in the project, Washington developed decompression sickness, which was known at the time as “caisson disease”.  It affected him so badly that he became bed-ridden.

As the only person to visit her husband during his sickness, Emily was to relay information from Washington to his assistants and report the progress of work on the bridge. She developed an extensive knowledge of strength of materials, stress analysis, cable construction, and calculating catenary curves through Washington’s teachings. Emily’s knowledge was complemented by her prior interest in and study of the bridge’s construction upon her husband’s appointment to chief engineer. For the decade after Washington took to his sick bed, Emily’s dedication to the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge was unyielding. She took over much of the chief engineer duties, including day-to-day supervision and project management. Emily and her husband jointly planned the bridge’s continued construction. She dealt with politicians, competing engineers, and all those associated with the work on the bridge to the point where people believed she was behind the bridge’s design.

In 1882, Washington’s title of chief engineer was in jeopardy because of his sickness. In order to allow him to retain his title, Emily went to gatherings of engineers and politicians to defend her husband. To the Roeblings’ relief, the politicians responded well to Emily’s speeches, and Washington was permitted to remain chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883. In advance of the official opening, carrying a rooster as a sign of victory, Emily Roebling was the first to cross the bridge by carriage. At the opening ceremony, Emily was honored in a speech by Abram Stevens Hewitt, who said that the bridge was

…an everlasting monument to the sacrificing devotion of a woman and of her capacity for that higher education from which she has been too long disbarred.

Engineer (by Default) Emily Warren Roebling: Later Life

Upon completion of her work on the Brooklyn Bridge, Emily invested her time in several women’s causes including Committee on Statistics of the New Jersey Board of Lady Managers for the World’s Colombian Exposition, Committee of Sorosis, Daughters of the American Revolution, George Washington Memorial Association, and Evelyn College.  This occurred when the Roebling family moved to Trenton, New Jersey. Emily also participated in social organizations such as the Relief Society during the Spanish–American War. She traveled widely—in 1896 she was presented to Queen Victoria, and she was in Russia for the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II.  She also continued her education and received a law certificate from New York University.

Engineer (by Default) Emily Warren Roebling: Tributes

Roebling is also known for an influential essay she authored, “A Wife’s Disabilities,” which won wide acclaim and awards. In the essay, she argued for greater women’s rights and railed against discriminatory practices targeted at women. Until her death on February 28, 1903, she spent her remaining time with her family and kept socially and mentally active.


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