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John K. (Jack) Brown taught history, applied ethics, writing, and public speaking in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society from 1992 to 2015. His research centers on American technological and business history.

His history of the Baldwin Locomotive Works was published in 1995. Since then, he has written articles on the communications embodied in mechanical drawing and dimensional plans, counterfactual history of technology, the creation of knowledge inside firms, and the evolution of antitrust law circa 1912. His publications have won awards from the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society, the Society for Industrial Archaeology, and the Society for the History of Technology. In 2024, the Johns Hopkins University Press will publish Spanning the Gilded Age: James Eads and the Great Steel Bridge.

Begun in 1867 and finished in 1874, the St. Louis Bridge was the first structure of any kind, anywhere in the world, built of steel.  Its three graceful arches broke world records for their span lengths; its stone foundations were the deepest yet constructed. To put those piers down to bedrock, this project became the American pioneer in using pressurized caissons. Preparing for his own challenges in Brooklyn, Washington Roebling came to St. Louis to learn all he could. The unique double-deck bridge has a broad roadway with sweeping vistas on its upper level while the dual tracks below finally connected the city to the national railway network.

The designer, James B. Eads, had left formal schooling behind at age 13. This charismatic figure had never designed a bridge before. But he had confidence, drive, and a talent to cast engineering problems in a fresh light, advancing novel solutions. For example, in the first year of the Civil War, ironclad warships built by Eads fought and won the Union’s first significant victories -- a month before the famous contest (a draw) between the Monitor and the Merrimack.

He was also talented in enlisting the resources needed to create his designs. To build the St. Louis Bridge, Eads enlisted a young Andrew Carnegie. Along with 100 investors, Pierpont Morgan in New York and Morgan’s father, Junius, in London financed the project. In fulfilling his requirements for the bridge, Eads forced developments in steel production before that industry really existed in the United States.

Now known as the Eads Bridge, this graceful structure remains in use to this day, an icon of St. Louis that will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2024.

The author can be reached at jackbrown@virginia.edu


BA, History - Emory University

MA, American History - University of Virginia

PhD, American History - University of Virginia