The Two Towers VIII:
Spinning Beginning

Previous posts on the new Narrows Bridge:

  1. History of the Tacoma Narrows Bridges
  2. The Two Towers I: Intro
  3. The Two Towers II: Concrete Thinking
  4. The Two Towers III: Anchor Management Classes
  5. The Two Towers IV: Out & Down
  6. The Two Towers V: The Struts
  7. The Two Towers VI: To the Top
  8. The Two Towers VII: Stairway to Heaven

 
For those who may be new to this series, I am blogging the construction of the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge. See the above posts for more information on the Narrows Bridges, the engineering challenges, and a recent first-hand tour taken of the construction site.

Bridges at dusk

The engineering beauty of modern suspension bridges lies in the graceful catenary curves of their cables. Starting out as near-gossamer threads of steel wire–no larger than that which you could purchase at your local hardware store–their massive girth and strength support almost unthinkable weight across impossibly wide chasms. Taken for granted as we drive across such majestic spans–perhaps more drawn to the views of water or wilderness they afford–one rarely ponders how such muscular steel sinews are created. It’s a fascinating process–and it’s just begun on the new Narrows Bridge.

Cable spinning is not a new technology. First used in the mid-1800’s, it’s most noteworthy early application was the Brooklyn Bridge–the first suspension bridge to use steel, rather than iron, cables. Its designer–generally considered to be the father of modern suspension bridge technology–was John Roebling, a German immigrant who leveraged his knowledge in wire rope technology into a notable and influential career in bridge design. Ironically, the steel cables produced by Roeblings’ company were instrumental in defeating German U-boat threats in the North Sea in WWI.

Bridges had been suspended from iron chains for nearly 2000 years. But the idea of spinning a wire cable right in place over a river — adding a few strands with each pass — was both new and very radical in the nineteenth century. In 1841, Roebling–a wire cable manufacturer–wrote an article on constructing bridges by building up large cables from many smaller wires, borrowing and enhancing some earlier ideas from European engineers. He first built such a suspension bridge over the Allegheny River, and subsequently completed a series of bridges, including one which spanned the Delaware River between New York and Pennsylvania, part of the Delaware-Hudson canal system. It opened in 1847, 36 years before the Brooklyn Bridge, and is still in service. Roebling also designed and built the more famous Cincinatti Suspension Bridge, which shows many of the design features used in the subsequent Brooklyn Bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge was an engineering marvel. The tallest structure in New York at the time, half again as long as the longest bridge then constructed, its massive Gothic stone towers were built using an innovative pressurized-air caisson technology to reach bedrock in the East river–over 70 feet down on the New York side. The depth and high pressure proved dangerous, even deadly, to many workers–including Roebling’s son Washington, who was severely disabled from decompression illness (a.k.a., “the bends”). John Roebling himself died of tetanus from a foot injury during construction, and never lived to see his dream fulfilled. His son Washington directed its completion from his sick bed, using his wife as a courier, mediator, and supervisor to the construction crew and engineers.

Brooklyn Bridge

But the cable spinning technology developed by Roebling was essentially the same as that used today. Initially, not everyone was a believer in this technique: The New York Times criticized the use of steel over iron, predicting that its increased weight would cause the structure to collapse. The New York Times’ accuracy also has not changed much in 150 years … but I digress.

Thin steel wires–0.5 cm in diameter in the case of the Narrows bridge–are laid down in pairs by means of a traveling wheel (called a traveler, unsurprisingly, or a sheave). Each pair of wires forms a continuous loop, wrapped about a semicircular grooved shoe (called a strand shoe) at the opposing anchorage, which also serves to adjust their tension.

strand shoe

Repeated strands of wire are looped back and forth across the river, then wrapped into groupings known as strands or tendons. When multiple such tendons had been created, they were again bundled together by wrapping, to form the final cable.

coins

The concept is akin to stacking coins, as each tendon forms a hexagonal shape initially as wires are laid circumferentially in pairs. Wrapping them compresses the individual wires into a more circular shape. The tendons are well-seen in this recent photograph from the Carquinez Straight bridge, recently competed across the Sacramento River near San Francisco:

cable tendons

What has changed since the cable spinning on the Brooklyn Bridge is the speed and sophistication of the cable laying and tensioning process. Our tour of the cable spinning on the new Narrows bridge starts at the east shore–the Tacoma side.

cable spools

Steel cable, imported from Japan, arrives in relatively small spools, each containing about 4 miles of wire (seen in the warehouse above, photo courtesy of the News Tribune), are rewound onto larger spools on site onto larger drums, 7 1/2 feet tall, containing about 24 miles of wire. The wire ends are connected with steel ferrules, creating a single continuous wire on each drum.

cable prep area

The preparation area where this occurs is seen above. The drums are then transported to the area just behind the east anchorage, where an elaborate, Rube Goldberg set of pulleys and tensioning wheels is used to guide and control the spooling and feeding of the wires.

cable spools

The vertical tower helps control the rate of feed and the tension through an elaborate system of pulleys, under active control from a nearby control booth.

cable spool tower

A third set of tensioning spools–arrayed horizontally in an X-pattern just behind the anchorage–feeds the wires laterally around each side of the anchorage to the waiting tram wheel.

cable wheels

cable wheels

Well, that’s all for this installment, lest the post get too long–a veritable bridge too far. In the next post (hopefully later today or tomorrow) we’ll look at the the actual spinning process–including some video of the tram wheel in action.

A closing comment or two about the photography: I have taken many of the pictures posted here, using my favorite camera: a Panasonic DMC-FZ20, with a remarkable 12x optical zoom Leica Lumix lens and optical image stabilization. Wonderfully light, sturdy camera with one of the easiest user interfaces I’ve used in a digital camera. I am indebted, however, to two excellent sources for photographs of the Narrows Bridge construction: The Washington State Department of Transportation site, and the Tacoma News Tribune, which has been running a series on the construction. I should be a bit more specific with photo attribution, but life and time are short–so sue me. The WSDOT photos, taken by the construction crews, are typically time and date stamped in red in the lower right. And contrary to rumors, I did not take the photos of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge–I was a mere child back then…

Thanks for reading–next bridge update should be up soon.

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Spinning Beginning

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