A Man Who Spanned Two Eras:
The story of bridge pioneer Ralph Modjeski
Reviewer: Ashley Fillmer
By Józef Glomb. Translated by Peter Obst. Philadelphia, PA: The Philadelphia Chapter of the Kosciuszko Foundation, 2002. 90 pages. Paper.
Although the bulk of bridge engineer Ralph Modjeski's projects are permanent fixtures on American interstates and railroads, the story behind their creator remained in Poland until 2002. Józef Glomb's biography of Modjeski first appeared in Poland in 1981, and celebrated the little-known American of Polish background through an exhaustive, disorderly account of his life and work, creating a difficult task for translator Peter Obst, chapter president of the Kosciuszko Foundation in Philadelphia. His proposed translation of A Man Who Spanned Two Eras garnered attention from Modjeski's relatives and the Modjeski and Masters engineering firm, and received continued support from historian Edward Pinkowski. Despite various publishers' lack of interest in the book's devotion to a twentieth-century century engineer, Obst persisted and eventually incorporated new material into the existing book, including a foreword by Polish Ambassador Przemyslaw Grudzinski and complementary preface by professor of mechanical engineering Zbigniew Marian Bzymek.
Obst began the translation with the hope of publishing before the 75th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin Bridge in 2001. The final product followed one year after the bridge's grand anniversary celebration, but still met thorough acknowledgment from the American Polish community. First ladies Laura Bush and Jolanta Kwasniewska of Poland received the translation in ceremony, giving the nearly forgotten engineer some posthumous recognition and Obst reassurance that his translation project was worthwhile; he includes a reprint of Laura's official White House thank you after the translator's note.
A worthwhile effort it was, as Modjeski's engineering feats were monumental for his time. The book's reader, however, might find it difficult to understand exactly how Modjeski accomplished what the title states. Obst apparently aimed at reaching two audiences: the novice engineers and Polish American biography enthusiasts. The text rarely delves into the principles of structural engineering and is replete with praise for Modjeski's roots. The first two chapters are almost entirely devoted to his Polish upbringing. At times it is uncertain whether Modjeski or his mother, a famous actress on the Polish and American stages, is the focus of the biography. The reader gets a mild sense of Polish affluence and cultural tradition under imposed Austro-Hungarian influence and begins to wonder if this is perhaps the first of the two eras the Modjeski family experienced. The Modjeskis later traveled across the ocean to settle in post-Reconstruction America.
The author's subsequent attention to the minute details of the Modjeskis wanderings and personal lives after immigration are tiresome and only provide a weak character foundation for the future engineer. There are suggestions that Modjeski learned at an early age to endure hardships and rise above present challenges, but there is also a great deal about the family's affluence and unwavering emotional support. Obst also describes how Modjeski hesitated between taking music or engineering as a profession, and for all of the information on his gifted mother's theatrical success there is no satisfactory conclusion as to why he chose engineering in the end, save for a mention of a childhood interest in the Panama Canal. But choose engineering he did, and instead of an education at the conservatory, Modjeski relocated to the école des Ponts et Chausses in Paris and earned a diploma as engineer of roads and bridges.
Modjeski's engineering school experience was accompanied by wotmessomg the construction of the Eiffel Tower and complemented by daily travels through Hausmann's city design. The Paris scene was an explosion of modernism, but this piece of historical significance is glossed over as an influence to the young engineer. His early bridge designs borrowed the boundary-breaking elements of modernism but did not retreat from pure functionality in their esthetic design. He leapt into the middle of a great push toward modernizing American transportation, designing bridges that stretched further and supported more than any preceding structure. But he was not the first to employ the methods seen in the great works of American bridge engineering; the famous suspension design of the Brooklyn Bridge was common and cantilevered construction standard. With the modernist era of architecture and engineering already in progress, it is difficult to assume that Ralph Modjeski was the man that built an essential bridge into a new era.
He did, however, introduce methods into modern bridge building that paved the way for greater and safer bridges around the world. Even during the swell of modern engineering, construction procedures were dangerous due to flaws in bridge design. But it becomes only too slowly apparent that this hastiness of modernization is the first "era" alluded to by the title. Modjeski conquered the challenges of building the Cecilo Bridge on unstable foundations through the yet-untamed Oregon wilderness, calculated seismic interference for the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge, redesigned the Quebec Bridge, and broke world records in cantilever and suspension bridge spans, all within the perimeters of newly adopted safety standards. Increase in bridge span, introduction of new construction materials, and refined techniques to achieve strength and form are the bastions of Modjeski's career.
The main elements that contribute to Modjeski's fame only appear sporadically throughout the text, confined in clear detail to the last few paragraphs of the book. An understanding of his accomplishments is discernible only through steadfast, disciplined reading through the minutiae of Modjeski's life and bridge building. There are refreshing moments of lucid writing in which the author, or the translator, provides analysis of the engineer's work and reflects on different periods of his personal life, allowing the reader brief insight into the significance of Modjeski's career. At these points it is apparent that he is not being praised simply for his Polish roots or seeming lack of public acknowledgement. By the end of the biography we are privy to Modjeski's many amazing technological maneuvers that elevated bridge engineering to a new standard. An engineer's precision and inventiveness brought Modjeski success and he deserves a more cohesive attention to his bridge works and biographical details.
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