13 January 2011

Max Eyth: "The Bridge Builder"

Last year I reviewed both Peter Lewis's "Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay", and John Rapley's "Thomas Bouch: The Builder of the Tay Bridge", both about the 1879 Tay Bridge disaster, in which 75 people died. The tragic story of the bridge's collapse is a familiar cautionary tale, although I suspect most bridge engineers know little of the detail other than that the bridge was under-designed for wind load. Construction defects, poor design detailing, and inadequate maintenance all played their part, as did economic pressures.

Max Eyth's "The Bridge Builder" (Sampson Low, 1937, 218pp) is a long out-of-print novelisation of the disaster, originally written in German and published in English translation. I was attracted to it by the back cover blurb, which describes "the deep absorption of the engineer in the wonderful thing that has been conceived in his brain and given material form before his eyes; his artistic delight in the beauty of a perfect mechanical creation; his sense of responsibility for its soundness and durability; all this is set forth with a terse conciseness and a deliberate restraint that are at once emotional and convincing, and give the book undeniable literary value".

Books with a bridge engineer as the central character are few and far between, let alone those claiming to offer special insight, so this seemed like it might be especially interesting to a curious Pontist.

Max Eyth was himself a noted engineer (albeit a designer of agricultural machinery). He appears in the first person in the novel as the narrator of the story of the only barely fictitious "Enno Bridge". However, the main protagonist is one Harold Stoss, a German engineer whose mastery of structural theory is of great service to his employer, William Bruce, civil engineer for the North Flintshire Railway.

Bruce is the stand-in for the bold lead engineer Thomas Bouch, while Stoss's closest real-life counterpart is the Cambridge mathematician Allan Duncan Stewart, who carried out the calculations for the bridge's metalwork and later went on to assist Benjamin Baker in the design of the Forth Bridge.

In the first chapter, Eyth encounters Stoss, and a third German expat engineer, in lodgings in Manchester. As narrator, Eyth reports secondhand on his friend Stoss's experiences, receiving news of developments at the Enno Firth through occasional visits and letters. Only after the bridge is complete does Eyth travel to see it for himself.

All the secondhand reportage gives the book an oddly detached and uninvolving style. Most, if not all, the technical detail is an accurate account of the Tay Bridge story, with a series of bold engineering decisions paving the way for eventual catastrophe. Stoss becomes increasingly anxious about whether he has fulfilled his duties properly, particularly in regard to the treatment of wind load. Speaking of Bruce/Bouch's daughter, he comments that "she kissed me into a lower co-efficient of safety". His mingled joy and fear as he pushes the boundaries of design should be familiar to any engineer who has lain awake late at night pondering the risks associated with innovation.

The engineering is interspersed with plenty of incidental detail, but I still finished The Bridge Builder thinking it was rather unsatisfying. The distancing effect of the uninvolved narrator is the main issue, and the somewhat episodic nature of Eyth's intersections with events leave everything quite disjointed as well.

It would be interesting to see what a more contemporary writer would make of the Tay Bridge story. I can easily imagine it as a courtroom drama, focussing on the real-life debate on where to place the blame. However, although the Tay Bridge Court of Inquiry reached rather firm and unequivocal conclusions, history suggests that the bridge fell for a number of coincident reasons, which may be less suited to the imperatives of drama. A simple re-telling of events might be sufficient, particularly if it got closer to the heart of Bouch himself, who was both the hero and villain of events, with a tragic end.

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