An Old Controversy, Partially Mistaken

Of all of the odd corners of the internet, the Internet Archive is, in my opinion, the most useful. I never go fishing there without finding something that (a) I never had any idea existed and (b) I desperately want to read. That said, one of the oddest documents I’ve come across there is “American versus English methods of bridge designing.” It’s mostly reprints of letters to the Japan Mail, an English-language newspaper published in Yokohama, but that description leaves out a good amount of drama.

The controversy was triggered by a review in the Mail of A system of iron railroad bridges for Japan by John Alexander Low Waddell, usually known as J.A.L. Waddell. Waddell was a bridge designer; when the book was published in 1885, he was teaching engineering at Tokyo Imperial University. His legacy consists of a bridges across the US (like the Steel Bridge in Portland, above) and a number of useful books about bridge design written between the 1880s and 1920s. In short, he was a serious and accomplished engineer.

The controversy – the long stream of letters with engineers and others sniping at one another and at, variously, the US, the UK, and Japan – was based on some intemperate language by Waddell in responding to a criticism, but more than anything else on a misunderstanding regarding technology. Waddell felt that the “American system of bridge building” – an idea that is fuzzy at best – was a better fit for Japan than the (variously) European, English, or British systems. In brief, he preferred large-scale trusses with heavy built-up iron and steel sections to lattice trusses and short spans. That does not seem like a position that could start a public argument, but it did.

My problem with both sides of the argument, once you get past the personalities and flag-waving, is that they’re both at least partly wrong. The mistake is quite simple: there is no single best design for bridges. There is not necessarily a single best design for an individual specific location; there is certainly no single best design for a country or for everyone everywhere. There is no platonic ideal of a bridge or any other structure. (I may not be a neutral party here: if there were such a thing, it would greatly reduce the need for engineers.) Whether one system is better than another is a question of engineering design and therefore partially a question of external conditions and economics. For example, a lot of US bridges were being built a great deal further from cities than their UK equivalents. This would make work on site with skilled labor – foundations and field connections, for example – relatively more expensive in the US and create pressure for designs that minimized these elements. The more rugged topography of the American west compared to England (but not the Scottish Highlands) would also encourage designers to use more shop fabrication where possible. So what was, in 1885, the right answer for Japan? I don’t know, but I’m sure it was neither one based solely on US precedents nor one based solely on UK precedents. It would have to be – and inevitably was – based on the state of Japan’s economy, design, and steel industry at the time.

There’s probably a moral here about stepping back from an argument to see what you’re actually arguing about.

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