Budapest Chain Bridge online archive - an ambition achieved

Ahead of the ICE Bridges 2016 conference on 1 June, a new archive has been launched featuring the fascinating history behind the Széchenyi Bridge – aka the Budapest Chain Bridge.

The Budapest Chain Bridge, designed by William Tierney Clark, was the city’s first crossing of the Danube.
The Budapest Chain Bridge, designed by William Tierney Clark, was the city’s first crossing of the Danube.

The historic background of how the Budapest Chain Bridge over the Danube came into being in 1849 has now been documented in an online archive:, a project supported by ICE’s Research & Enabling Fund. The archive details how the English Industrial Revolution’s engineering advances and expertise were brought to a backward country trying to catch up.

The architect-engineer of the bridge was William Tierney Clark (1783-1852), an early member of ICE, who was based in Hammersmith. The driving force behind the project was the Hungarian Count István Széchenyi who visited Clark in 1832 – by which time Clark had completed three chain suspension bridges at Hammersmith, Marlow and Shoreham, all distinguished by a combination of elegant architecture and excellent engineering.

The new archive database comprises all of the known English language correspondence and reports as well as most of the drawings. It is believed to be the most comprehensive collection of material associated with the building of a historic bridge.

Project conception

Back in 2009, a presentation was made to ICE Archives Panel members Mike Chrimes MBE and Lawrance Hurst, highlighting that a rich and important part of English engineering history resided in Budapest archives. This led to an application for ICE funding for development of a database.

ICE subsequently entered into a contract with the Budapest History Museum (BTM), one of the archival depositories, to deliver it. Other principal depositories are the Hungarian National Archive (MOL) and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA), with the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) supplying further material.

Tierney Clark’s legacy

Tierney Clark’s own archives were unfortunately lost after his death, however upon the bridge’s completion he wrote a general historical account, including 39 drawings showing design and construction features. This was published in 1850 as part of the Supplement to the Theory Practice and Architecture of Bridges, a copy of which is in the ICE’s archives.

Some years ago, ICE also acquired copies of contract terms and specifications relating to the construction of the cofferdams for the bridge foundations.

What’s in the database?

The database is a valuable depository of both engineering and social history.

The MTA material includes the exchange of letters between Tierney Clark and Count Széchenyi, mainly from the development phase of the project in 1832-39. Some important reports from this phase are also included.

The MOL has provided a number of original drawings, relating to both the design and construction phases, including some original contract drawings of the cofferdam construction.

The BTM material is drawn from the Adam Clark Archive, acquired in 1941. Adam Clark, who was the construction superintendent in Budapest, remained in Hungary after the project was finished. The material includes Tierney Clark’s extensive engineering correspondence with his namesake during the construction process, from 1839-49. In addition, Adam Clark’s correspondence with his parents, who lived in London, contains some interesting diary letters describing the construction process, together with more general observations.

The character of Tierney Clark as a person comes across vividly in his letters written to a colleague in London during his travels to and from Pesth.

The team behind the archive

The concept for producing a database was initiated by Sandor Vaci, a Hungarian born British architect, who was later to be joined by John Vignoles, an ICE member with a long interest in bridge building.

The first step was identifying what should be included, having the material scanned in Budapest and then having it catalogued, described and indexed in London. The prepared material was then built into a searchable database, which has now been launched online. The resulting material consists of some 480 items but it is hoped more items will be added in the future.

There is a rich and intriguing world for those interested enough to enter the database, including the details and challenges of building a bridge in the icebound Danube before mid-nineteenth century. The Chain Bridge, later renamed Széchenyi Bridge, was rebuilt in 1914-15, blown up by the retreating Germans in 1945, and rebuilt again in 1949 remaining a fitting symbol of Hungarian ambition fulfilled with British expertise.

The building of the database was encouraged by Mike Chrimes MBE and managed in Budapest by Roland Perenyi.

ICE Bridges 2016

The third annual ICE Bridges conference takes place on 1 June 2016 at One Great George St, Westminster.

Throughout the programme, the conference will explore methods to assess, manage, maintain and upgrade aging assets. Our speakers will bring us the latest on innovative techniques and materials to design new bridges, with wholelife maintenance as an integral part of the design brief. Delegates will hear about the bridges shaping the UK’s modern infrastructure and learn about the advancements in structural engineering offering new possibilities.

To find out more and to register to attend, visit