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Squire Whipple

Squire Whipple

U.S civil engineer, inventor and theoretician (1804-1888)

Expertise

Bridges, Rail

Location

Americas
Career highlights

‘The Father of Iron Bridge Building in America’

Designed the Vischer Ferry Bridge, a cast iron bridge which still survives to this day

Inventor of the weigh lock scale

Why you might have heard of Squire Whipple

American civil engineer Squire Whipple was known as ‘the Father of Iron Bridge building in America.’

A civil engineer, inventor, and theoretician, he famously provided the first scientifically based rule for bridge construction.

Though Whipple began his career working on canal and railroad projects, it wasn’t long until bridges caught his eye.

By 1847, he published a seminal brochure, A Work on Bridge Building, which was the first of its kind to propose a theoretical formula for calculating stresses in iron truss bridges – a theory which, as the Industrial Revolution accelerated, was to transform the development of the railroad industry.

Education

Whipple’s family moved to Ortego County near Cooperstown, New York, which allowed Squire access to the best common school education possible. 

He was later educated at the Fairfield Academy in Herkimer, New York, before he enrolled at Union College in Schenectady, New York, which he impressively graduated from in just one year. 

Career

When Whipple embarked on his civil engineering career in the 1830s, he first served as an apprentice working on railroads, including the Baltimore and Ohio railroads, the Erie Canal Enlargement and the New York and Erie Railroad, to name just a few.

Whipple’s transition to working on iron truss bridges occurred when he designed and built a weigh lock scale. Weigh lock scales are a device that weigh cargo boats to determine the toll payments due once a ship is fully loaded.

Whipple’s lock scale could weigh up to 300 tons on the Erie Canal in Utica – the largest weighing device in America at this time.

As his speciality became that of bridges, Whipple patented designs for a bowstring iron-bridge truss and a lift-draw bridge, later publishing his findings in An Elementary and Practical Treatise on Bridge Building (1869).

What made him stand out from the crowd was his insistence on using cast iron to build bridges in place of timber. The durability of cast iron material became evident when a wooden bridge collapsed, finally convincing authorities to take Whipple's proposal seriously.

After much hesitation from the Erie Canal authorities, Whipple’s design was commissioned, resulting in hundreds of bridges of its kind being built across the canal.

Many of his designs survive to this day, including Vischer Ferry Bridge, which continues to span the Erie Canal.

Initially located in Johnston town, New York, a Whipple bowstring truss was also moved to Union College, where Whipple studied, alongside a memorial plaque acknowledging his incredible contribution to bridge engineering.

Personal life

Squire Whipple was born in Hardwick, Massachusetts, to James and Electa (Johnson) Whipple.

The young Whipple became interested in construction from early childhood, after witnessing his father, a farmer who ran a cotton-spinning mill in Greenwich, using different construction materials as part of his work.

Whipple died at home in Albany, New York, on 15 March 1888, at the age of 83. He was laid to rest at Albany Rural Cemetery.

Fascinating facts

Though the name ‘Squire Whipple’ might sound like a character from literature, it was indeed his real name. 

To help him on his mission to convince the Erie Canal authorities of the integrity of his proposal, Whipple designed and built a truss iron bridge at expense to himself.

Alongside his day job, he spent his early career exploring his creative side, fashioning, and selling mathematical equipment, including transits, drafting equipment and engineer’s levels.

Squire's Notable Projects

Vischer Ferry Bridge. Image credit: Sandy Johnston

Vischer Ferry Bridge

Membership of societies

Honorary member of the American Society of Civil Engineers