Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Intro to Two Bridges

There's something I've been meaning to write for a while. I think this entry will basically be the lead for an article that compares two bridge designs: one ancient (from Bachot) and one (relatively) modern.

These two figures clearly depict designs of bridges. When compared to the modern design, however, Besson's design seems somehow naive. Indeed, the entire genre of the theatrum machinarum has come under fire. Gille, for example, commented on the “puerility” of the authors' florid imaginations and Edgerton referred to them as “coffee-table books” for aristocrats (Dolza & Verin, 2004). Basalla (1988) even compared them to the fantastical mechanical creations of Rube Goldberg, the muse of such diversions as the board game Mousetrap.

But why does the modern design seem so much more real to our modern eyes? Contemplating the two figures, I begin to get a sense of vertigo as the canyon of historicity yawns in front of me. As a civil engineer, I'm aware of the standardized elements of the modern design that make it seem real. But as an historian of technology I'm aware that these elements each have a long and drawn out history of skirmishes and sorties that were fought to in order to fabricate the standards. I'm reminded of Henry Adams who visited the great Paris exhibition of 1900. He was overcome by the sudden emergence of the awesome power of electrical technology. He described the experience as having "his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new." Contemplating these two images has induced in me a very similar experience but its not modernity that has overwhelmed me; it's the lurking depths of historicity.

The purpose of this paper is partially to articulate how technical drawing evolved from the puerile drawings of Bachot to the real drawings of the modern design. I intend to invoke Donald MacKenzie's call to undertake studies of technology, "not to settle priority disputes, not to satisfy antiquarian curiosity, not for celebration, but because only through history can we find how the ship got into the bottle, how the technological artefacts and the technological knowledge we take for granted became takeable for granted." (p. 254) Specifically, I explore the emergence of particular standards that are exploited in the modern drawing. As noted by Bowker and Star, standards are particularly important in questions of the "taken-for-grantedness of objects" (p.15) The back story of standards is a particularly elusive quarry. They represent the types of text that "overtly aim to negate their own status as discourse in order to produce, at the practical level, behaviour or practices held to be legitimate or useful." (Chartier, 1989, p.170)

The paper addresses the emergence of three particular types of standards. The first is technical drawing, a crucial consideration for why the drawing appears the way it does. The second concerns units of measurement. The third isn't about the referent rather than the image. It is about the origin of perhaps the most banal aspect of technical drawings: standard structural shapes i.e., the shape of the I-beam.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Notes from Misa's A Nation of Steel

"In our scientific ages, pundits and publicists have often asserted that modern technology is simply the insights of modern science coupled to the craft tradition. This view of technology as applied science has served as a powerful myth for legitimating science policy (give scientists money, and technological innovations will automatically result), but this view is worse than useless for comprehending the dynamics of technical and social change." (p. xv)

"Furthermore, any reasonable description of technical change must consider how and why institutions have fostered and developed technologies." (p. xvi)

* Emphasis on "thick description" (p. xvi)

Posits that technology is a result of various social changes. It's a symptom, not a cause (p. xvii)

"The effort to create a new steel for urban structures--in effect, to break the tyranny of technique imposed by the Bessemer steel rail--was a mammoth technical and scientific effort involving new linkages between producers and consumers of steel. This effort drew on nearly four decades of groundwork in building bridges, towers, and elevated trains." (p.50)

* Phoenix iron works survived recession via elevated trains in New York
* Skilled labour was an ongoing issue: getting it and keeping it from striking

"Although Phoenix and Cooper-Hewitt had been leaders in structural iron, they became followers in structural steel. Other companies were able to roll larger or lighter sections of steel, while Phoenix and Cooper-Hewitt remained expert in rolling the largest sections of iron." (p.60)

W.L.B. Jenney: "The standard specifications of the Carnegie Steel Company are usually used in the West." (p.60)

"Building codes reflected the intersecting demands of historical precedent, innovation from the building trades, and a city's political process. The New York building code, for example, was revised through negotiations among the Fire Department, Architectural Iron Association, American Institute of Architects, Mechanics and Traders Exchange, Real Estate Owners and Builders Association, and Real Estate Exchange, as well as fire insurers, fire engineers, building superintendents, theater consultants, and lawyers." (p.66)

Different cities gave different design value for various materials: wrought, cast, and steel. Chicago preferred steel and the building design matched this preference.

"The Carnegie handbook for structural steel that advertised these technical advantages [of deeper beams and lighter weights] became a powerful competitive tool. 'Architects, engineers and others who draw specifications seem to know of no book but Carnegie's,' observed a rival's sales agent in 1897. 'Ten years ago their book was not better than Phoenix, Pencoyd, Passaic or any of the others,' he stated, 'but in the last 5 years the others have been obliged to adopt Carnegie's sections right straight through.' 'No advertisement,' observed the salesman, was as valuable as handbook like Carnegie's that is 'almost universally sought after' and gradually sets a standard that all competitors must meet or else lose business. The ultimate compliment was paid earlier than the salesman may have known, when Passaic's 1886 handbook plagiarized an entire introductory section from Carnegie's 1881 edition." (p.71)

Charles L. Stroble transformed the Carnegie handbook. He joined the Keystone Bridge Company in 1878 where he served as engineer and special assistant to the president until 1885. He designed new column designs using z-bars and from 1885 to 1893 worked extensively with Chicago architects as a consulting engineer. His contributions to the 1881 handbook were several pages of "General Notes on Floors and Roofs" that described a variety of connection methods. This section was gradually expanded in successive editions. The 1893 and 1896 editions were further expanded b F.H. Kindl. These works essentially began to serve as textbooks: "For an architect new to structural-steel construction, or for an experienced architect seeking to persuade an uncertain client, here was a handbook valuable beyond all others." (p.74) The need for a textbook prompted Wiley to establish a series of engineering textbooks. In essence, Carnegie was able to dominate structural steel through his use of the handbook.

The 1893 version is available from the Internet Archive:

CHK: Temin. 1964. Iron and steel in 19th century America; Temin. 1963. Composition of iron and steel products. Journal of economic history.

From 1910, the SAE also had a battle to define the standards for steel composition in automotive applications.
Two Engineers of the Renaissance: Besson and Ramelli

In 1948 Francois Russo presented an article about a "great fad" of the late 16th and 17th centuries: the Theatres de machines et instruments. He went to great pains to separate these works from earlier mining works such as those of Agricola or Biringuccio. Russo specifically discusses two authors: Besson and Ramelli. He notes that there are few details on the lives of either Besson or Ramelli and goes on to note that while some of Ramelli's machines are mechanically viable, Besson's designs lack both reality and graphical consistency. The entire article is less than five pages long.

The state of scholarship has changed considerably. We now know a great deal about the life of Besson and have much more information about some of the particularities of Ramelli's life; it's time to update Russo's account.

Francois Russo, "Deux ingenieurs de la renaissance: Besson et Ramelli," Thales (1948), pp. 108-12


My bible on structural steel construction was sired by industry. The first book on iron construction was published in 1876 by the Carnegie brothers. In 1889, Carnegie-Phipps published a book that included both iron and steel sections. Many other steel manufacturers followed suit since these works were crucial marketing tools. Steel sections became popular following the introduction of the Bessemer process but this type of steel was quickly found to be inappropriate. As various regions adopted building codes, they essentially copied directly from these handbooks. Even as the state of knowledge changed however, the sections and formulas contained in these works remained the same.

In 1922 the National Steel Fabricators Association changes its name to the American Institute of Steel Construction. The guiding light of the AISC was Lee H. Miler. At its founding, he established a series of objectives that the new organization had to achieve (p.14-15):

1. Establish a single code authority that would be recognized by different building code authorities.
2. Establish an authority that would be welcomed by producers, engineers, architects, and building commissions.
3. Establish a set of loading tables for all sections produced by the mills. The mills could then adopt these tables in their own handbooks. The AISC could then work with the public to generate cognitive authority.
4. Initiate a campaign of public eduction to bring steel construction into college courses and to promote steel as a building material. [Ed. This goal still exists among various trade organizations. When I was studying as an engineer the largest book in the campus book store was the Concrete Design Handbook. It was also one of the cheapest due to the auspices of various industry interests!]
5. Establish a uniform telegraphic code to establish uniformity of reference. This initiative presaged EDI projects.

The first priority of the new organization was to create a set of industry standards for the design and use of structural steel. Local building code authorities depended on the various manufacturer handbooks: "Catalogs of the various steel mills were the source of infomration about structural shapes, but there was considerable variation in the dimensions and properties from mill to mill. Design formulas, connection details, 'safe' load tables and other technical data varied from one catalog to another. This created confusion among architects and engineers attempting to design buildings or bridges. Waste and inefficiency were often prodigious." (p.19)

In 1923 AISC published Steel Construction which contained the Standard Specification for the Design, Fabrication and Erection of Structural Steel for Buildings. It provided an explanation of various formulas and included differed design aids for determining the limit stresses in various columns and beams. It fulfilled a demand in the market: "Almost immediately the Specification met with universal favor and began to be adopted by building officials and code bodies throughout the country. By AISC's second convention in November, 1924, the AISC Specification has been adopted by 25 prominent cities in the United States." (p.20)

The AISC even appealed to Herbert Hoover, then secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce (and no stranger to handbooks given his experience with De Re Metallica). He sent a letter to the AISC in October of 1924 (Gillette, 1980, p.20):

"It gives me pleasure to congratulate you and the members of the American Institute of Steel Construction on your splendid progress and practices. Voluntary cooperation of industry, the engineering profession, and the consuming public in these matters not only helps eliminate waste, but strengthens employment, and opens the door to greater prosperity for all concerned. I assure you of the continued interest and cooperation of the Dept. of Commerce in the furtherance of your constructive efforts."

Not surprisingly, one of the divisions of the Department of Commerce, the National Bureau of Standards was at the point struggling specifically with the need to create standards.

The first real handbook was published in 1926 with the cooperation of the steel mills. It was called Steel Construction Allowable Load Tables and included data on all of the beam and column shapes rolled in the U.S. It also contained data on popular built up members, rivet and bolt values, and a variety of other data. The data was based completely on the AISC standard specification. This book was an immediate success since it enabled a designer to consult a single work and not have to refer to a variety of different mill catalogs.

By 1926 the AISC was moving into other initiatives including the creation of a Code of Standard Practice. The priorities of the association also shifted to issues such as fireproofing, establishing fire insurance rates, welding of structural steel, wind bracing, abating riveting noise, alloy steels, and greater speed of steel erection (p.25).

Through the 1920s the AISC waged an aggressive media campaign to stabilize steel as a construction material.

The next chapter in structural steel standardization was late 1930, when United States Steel and Bethlehem Steel agreed to standardize wide flange shapes. These "WF" shapes were included in the new edition of the Steel Construction.

In 1943 the AISC went so far as to standardize the cost accounting process of steel fabricators by introducing the AISC Cost Manual. Other important works included a movie called "Build with Steel," and several books for popular consumption. In 1950, the AISC published a series of books called the AISC Textbook of Structural Shop Drafting in an attempt to standardize design formats. A series of additional movies were released: "The backbone of progress," "steel," "Empires of steel," "Bridging marble canyon," "Span supreme," and "Bridging a century."


Gillette, L. H. (1980). The first 60 years: the American Institute of Steel Construction, Inc., 1921-1980. Chicago, Ill: AISC.

And now the CISC (November 10, 2008)

Some information on the CISC has recently come into my orbit:

Boulanger and Gilmor trace the birth of the organization to the Dominion Bridge Company. In parallel with similar moves in the United States, bridge building emerged as an essential ingredient for the railways. This popularity grew to include steel framed structures.

The first meeting of steel fabricators occurred at the offices of the Canadian Steel Manufacturers' Association (CMA) on September 28, 1920. During this period Canadian fabricators began to join the AISC. By 1928 the AISC's District Engineer, Ernest Adams, served Ontario, Quebec, New England, and New York.

The 1930s were a time of renewed activity for the steel industry. Projects like Maple Leaf Gardens and the introduction of a variety of hydro projects drove the industry. Field welding also started to appear. WWII eventually opened up the economy and introduced number of innovations, including the use of welding.

Mr. W.B. Champ became the first President of the Canadian Fabricators Group in 1930 and announced that Ralph C. Manning, Discrict Engineer for the AISC, would devote himself to the Canadian market. Of the 14 original companies, 6 of them had the word "bridge" in their names. Those designers that dealt with moving loads used Canadian Engineering Standards Association Standard A1 (3rd edition) as a guide. By 1942, the ties with AISC were loosened and the CISC was granted a Dominion Charter as a non-profit trade association.

The CISC aided the Canadian government during WWII. Manning continued his work with the association after returning from service. In 1947, he used the tests and research of Dean C.R. Young and Peter Gillespie and advocated for the inclusion of steel in the National Building Code of Canada.

CISC published the Code of Field Practice for Assembly of High-Strength Bolts in 1954. It originated in the work completed by the Research Council on Riveted and Bolted Structural Joints, subsequently the Research Council on Structural Connection, and published as a specification in 1951. The Code of Field Practice was subsequently adopted throughout Canada, by the US Bureau of Roads, and was reviewed by the British Institute of Structural Engineers.


Boulanger, Sylvie and Michael Gilmor (Summer, 2005). CISC 1930-2005. A homage to the past. Advantage Steel, 23, 9-15.
Standards Bodies: AASM, NBS, etc.

I'm getting dogged by the Association of American Steel Manufacturers. How can an organization--particularly one that apparently had an early hand in standardizing steel shapes--just disappear? I've had to go digging. All that I know is that the shape of the I-beam standardized around 1896.

Here are some of the few facts that I've able to glean:

1. A New York Times article noted on June 1 1939: "Research in steel technology conducted by the Association of American Steel Manufacturers Technical Committees, with headquarters in Pittsburgh, is to be transferred to the Technical Committees of American Iron and Steel Institute, effective today." (p.43) The offices of the AASM closed on that day. So at least I have an end date. What about a start date?
2. The Washington Post may be able to add some details. On Jan 19 1896 (p.6), it noted that the Board of Supervising Inspectors of Steam Vessels petitioned the AASM to amend the rules and methods for testing plate. They wanted tensile strength to be limited to 60 kips, instead of 70 or 80. They also wanted a test to limit phosphorus and sulfur.

Google Books has a very intriguing collection of books that mention some to the AASM standards. Many of them are in the public domain. But of course Google only wants to give me snippet view...

The Universal Library also has some interesting leads. The "Cyclopedia of Civil Engineering v.3," (1919) for example, discuses "standard sections" for steel construction: "The shapes in common use conform to the standards of the Association of American Steel Manufacturers. These standard shapes as made by the various manufacturers are identical in dimensions and weights; therefore, in designing, it is only necessary to specify the sections and not the name of the manufacturer." (p.25)

A book by Harry Huse Campbell called "The manufacture and properties of iron and steel" (1907) also sheds some light on the AASM, and the specification process in general:

"It is the custom for engineers to specify the kind of steel they wish, and what the physical requirements shall be. It sometimes happens that the engineer does not understand all about the different kinds of steel and does not know what elongation and reduction of area should be obtained in each case. He often takes the first specification he finds and adds to it some special idea which has been impressed upon his mind. There are many such specifications used by engineers. Some of the are out of date, but hold their place because the longer they have been in use the more reverence they receive from certain people, and the more proud of his work is the author. His name attached to a set of specifications is a constant advertisement, and arouses a pardonable feeling of self-satisfaction. They conditions, however, do not serve scientific progress.

In 1895 the Association of American Steel Manufacturers adopted a set of specifications, and although it was claimed that it was the place of the manufacturers to do this, yet the users of structural material eagerly grasped these specifications as filling a long-felt want, and they are the basis of business to-day. There are two facts which may well be kept in mind:

First: The steel manufacturers in session assembled may be supposed to know something about steel.
Second: It is not for their interest to advocate a bad material. It might be for the interest of one of them to pass a bad lot of steel on a single contract, but as a whole they have no incentive to plead the cause of something they think is bad.

The steel makers are not a unit in all matters, but they agree in some things." (p.46)

The author then goes on to discuss the benefits and disadvantages of acid and basic steel and notes that the issues is soon to be put to rest by American Society for Testing Materials. The ASTM was essentially organized by the Pennsylvania Railroad (Knoedler, 1993). At the time, there was considerable tension between steel producers and steel consumers. Consumers tended to create very onerous specifications (occasionally including obscure and novel testing criteria) that the producers felt free to ignore. This tension emerged in a debate about the responsibility for broken rails. Railroads--the primary steel consumer--felt that the producers were at fault while the producers blamed the railroads and their increased wheel weights. This impasse was broken with the formation of the ASTM. It was originally established as the American division of the IATM in 1898 and evolved into the ASTM in 1902. Knoedler claims that its early role was as a consumer bloc. As such, it had two goals: to establish appropriate tests and to create standards that were mutually agreeable to both consumers and producers. Steel and iron were particularly important and the ASTM acted quickly to establish standards for structural steel, steel bars, steel axles, forgings, and castings. Standards such as ASTM A46 and ASTM A709 were particularly important.

ASTM wasnt' the only standards organization on the street. There was also the National Bureau of Standards. The NBS was founded in 1901. It was preceded by the Office of Weights and Measures of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. An explanation of this rather odd origin will require a different entry on the history of U.S. measurements. The NBS became the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 1988. Before the NBS there was considerable consternation with standards. Powell (2005) describes some of the problems experienced by manufacturers: lawsuits over electricity voltage, components that didn't match, and the Navy's need to send instruments to Europe for calibration. The federal government spent less than $11,000 on standardization. In 1900, the National Academy of Sciences resolved to endorse "a national bureau for the standardization of scientific apparatus." (Haseltine, 1953, p.295). When the NBS was established, it inherited only two standards. Ironically, they were the kg and the meter. The purpose of the NBS, as stated in its charters was to:

"Sec. 2. That the functions of the bureau shall consist in the custody of standards; the comparison of the standards used in scientific investigations, engineering, manufacturing, commerce, and educational institutions with the standards adopted or recognized by the Government; the construction, when necessary, of standards, their multiples and subdivisions; the testing and calibration of standard measuring apparatus; the solution of problems which arise in connection with standards; the determination of physical constants and the properties of materials, when such data are of great importance to scientific or manufacturing interests and are not to be obtained of sufficient accuracy elsewhere." (p.297)

The NBS emerged at the same time as a number of professional organizations such as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (spring of 1880) and the American Institute of Electrical [and Electronics] Engineers in 1884. In addition to creating standards, the NBS also issued "standard samples," notably a collection from the American Foundrymen's Association in 1905 and a collection of 17 types of steel for the AASM in 1906.


Haseltine, Nate. 1953. The national bureau of standards. The Scientific Monthly. 77(6): 295-301.

Knoedler, Janet T. (1993). Market structure, industrial research, and consumers of innovation: Forging backward linkages to research in turn-of-the-century U.S. steel industry. The Business History Review. 67(1), 98-139.

Powell, Evelyn Constance. 2005. The history and resources of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Science & Technology Libraries. 25(3),5-20.
Handbooks: A New Source

I found some new quotes that demonstrate the importance of engineering handbooks:

"Handbooks, encyclopedias, and dictionaries are an integral part of the engineer's library." pg. 5

"Handbooks provide fast access to charts, tables, short descriptions, formulas, and so on needed to do everyday tasks. While most engineers will have a copy of the handbooks that are most relevant to their work on their desk or on their computer desktop, they will seldom have access to the wide range of handbooks to support the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of engineering." pg. 5

The word "handbook" appears on 180 of 548 pages.


Osif, B.A. (2006). Introduction. In B.A. Ossif (Ed.) Using the engineering library. Routledge studies in library and information science, 1. (pp. 1-8)London: Routledge.