[Editor’s note: Cowper, Edward Shickle; Brunel, Isambard Kingdom; Seaward, Samuel; Rendel, James Meadows; Donkin, Bryan]

Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Vol. 1, 1841

February 16, 1841

In the month of December 1825, when the original construction of the bridge was nearly completed, several severe gales occurred, and considerable motion was observed, both in the main chains and in the platform of the carriageways. It appeared that the chains were not acted upon simultaneously, nor with equal intensity; it was believed, therefore, that if they were attached to each other, and retained in parallel plains, the total amount of movement would be diminished.

On the 30th of January, and on the 6th of February, 1826, some heavy gales again caused considerable motion of the chains and roadway, breaking several of the vertical suspending rods, and of the iron bearers of the platform.

These bearers were constructed of wrought-iron bars, overlapping each other, and bolted together, with the ends of the suspending rods between them, for the purpose of giving stiffness to the structure. The flooring planks were bolted to the bearers, and notched to fit closely round the suspending rods, which were thereby held almost immoveably in the platform.

It was observed, that the character of the motion of the platform was not that of simple undulation, as had been anticipated, but the movement of the undulatory wave was oblique, both with respect to the lines of the bearers, and to the general direction of the bridge. It appeared, that when the summit of the wave was at a given point on the windward side, it was not collateral with it on the leeward side, but, in relation to the flow of the wave, considerably behind it, and forming a diagonal line of wave across the platform.

The tendency of this undulation was, therefore, to bend the bearers into a form produced by the oblique intersection of a vertical plane with the surface of the moving wave. The bearers were not calculated to resist a strain of this nature: they therefore were fractured generally through the eyes on each side of the centre foot-path, at the point of junction with the suspending rods, which being bent backwards and forwards where they were held fast at the surface of the roadway, were in many instances wrenched asunder also.

The means adopted for repairing these injuries, and for preventing the recurrence of them, were, placing a stirrup, with a broad sole, beneath each of the fractured bearers, attaching it by an eye to the suspending rod, cutting away the planking for an inch around the rods, and at the same time bolting, transversely, to the underside of the roadway, an oak plank, fifteen feet long, between each two bearers, for the purpose of giving to the platform a greater degree of stiffness, combined with elasticity, than it previously possessed. The four lines of main chains were also connected by wrought-iron bolts passing through the joint plates, and traversing hollow cast-iron dis tance pieces, placed horizontally between the chains.

The effects of these alterations were so beneficial, that little or no injury occurred for nearly ten years. On the 23rd ofJanuary, 1836, a more than usually severe gale caused violent undulation of the platform, and broke several rods. There can be little doubt that ten years’ constant friction, combined with the shrinking of the timber, had relaxed the stiffness of the platform, and permitted an increased degree of undulation. The gate-keeper described the extreme amount of rise and fall of the roadway in a heavy gale to be not less than sixteen feet; the greatest amount of motion being about half way between the pyramids and the centre of the bridge.

In consequence of the injuries sustained during this gale, the author and Mr. Rhodes were instructed to give in a report upon the state of the bridge, and on any repairs or additions which might appear desirable.

The result of the examination was satisfactory; the whole of the masonry, the main chains, their attachments to the rock, the rollers and iron-work upon the pyramids, and all the principal parts of the bridge, were as perfect as when first constructed; it was, however, recommended, that “a greater degree of rigidity should be given to the roadways, so that they should not bend so easily under vertical pressure.”

The bridge remained in the same state until the hurricane of the 6th and 7th of January, 1839; during the night of the 6th, all approach to the bridge was impracticable; the bridge-keeper, however,
ascertained that the roadways were partially destroyed; and he in consequence traversed the strait in a boat in time to prevent the down mail from London driving on to the bridge.

When the day broke, it was found that the centre footpath alone remained entire, while both the carriage ways were fractured in several places. The suspending rods appeared to have suffered the greatest amount of injury; out of the total number of 444, rather more than one-third were torn asunder; one piece, 175 feet long, of the N.E. carriage way, was hanging down and flapping in the wind; much of the parapet railing was broken away; the ties and distance pieces between the main chains were destroyed; the chains had resisted well in spite of the violent oscillation they had been subjected to, to such an extent, as to beat them together and strike the heads off bolts of three inches diameter.

Means were immediately adopted for restoring the roadways; and so rapidly was this effected, that in five days carriages and horses. passed over, while foot passengers were not at any time prevented from crossing.

The account of the restoration of the bridge, communicated by Mr. Maude to the Institution, is then alluded to.

The substance of the report of the author to the Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Woods is then given, and a review of the proposals made by Mr. Comms, Colonel Pasley, and others, relative to the restoration.

The opinion of Colonel Pasley, “that all the injuries which have occurred to the roadways of Suspension Bridges must have been caused by the violent action of the wind from below,” is then examined, and reasons given for the author’s dissent from that opinion.

The action of the wind upon the Conway and Hammersmith Bridges, is next examined; and from the amount of oscillation observed in all suspension bridges, the conclusion is arrived at, that winds act strongly and prejudicially on the fronts as well as on the horizontal surfaces of the platforms of suspension bridges, and that the effect of winds is modified and varied by the nature of the country, and the local circumstances connected with each individual bridge. Although differing in opinion with Colonel Pasley as to the general cause of injury to suspension bridges, the author agrees with him in the propriety of giving increased longitudinal rigidity to their platforms, to prevent or to restrict undulation. He advised its adoption in 1836, and applied his plan of stiffening by beams, in 1839. He preferred beams to trussed framing, on account of the facility with which the former could be increased in number, to obtain any requi site degree of stiffness, and because he feared that trussed frames could not always be kept firmly in their true vertical positions.

A drawing showing the injuries sustained by the platform during the hurricane of 1839, accompanied the communication.

Mr. Cowper was of opinion, that the real cause of injury to suspension bridges was the vibration of the chains and roadway. The whole suspended part, when acted upon by the wind, became in
some measure a pendulum, and if the gusts of wind were to recur at measured intervals, according either with the vibration of the pendulum, or with any multiples of it, such an amount of oscillation would ensue as must destroy the structure. He illustrated this proposition by a model with chains of different curves, and at the same time pointed out the efficiency of slight brace chains in checking the vibration.

Mr. Brunel agreed with Mr. Cowper in his opinion of the cause of injury to bridges, and with the propriety of applying brace chains, for preventing the vibration. He then alluded to the introduction of lateral braces in the bridge designed by Mr. Brunel, Sen. for the Isle of Bourbon. He had been at the Menai Bridge during a severe storm, and had particularly noticed the vibration of the chains, with the accompanying undulation of the platform. The force of the wind was not apparently from beneath; it appeared to act altogether laterally. The chains were too high above the roadway; their vibration commenced before the platform moved: the unequal lengths ofthe suspension rods then caused the undulating motion. His attention had latterly been much given to the subject on account of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, now erecting under his direction. The span would be seven hundred feet, and the height above the water about two hundred feet. He intended to apply the system of brace chains at a small angle to check vibration. To two fixed points in the face of one pyramid would be attached two chains, each describing a curve horizontally beneath the platform, touching respectively the opposite sides of the centre of the bridge, and thence extending to similar points on the other pyramid: there they were attached to two levers, the ends of which were connected with a counter balance of about four tons weight appended to each ; these weights would hold the chains sufficiently extended to enable them to resist the lateral action of the strongest winds without their being so rigid as to endanger any part of the structure. By this contrivance the platform would be kept firm, which was the chief point to be attained.

In all suspension bridges the roadways had been made too flexible, and the slightest force was sufficient to cause vibration and undulation. The platform of the Clifton Bridge would have beneath it a complete system of trough-shaped triangular bracing, which would render it quite stiff. He was an advocate for bringing the main chains down to the platform, as at the Hammersmith Bridge, and for attaching the bearers to the chains at two points only; when they were suspended by four rods, it not unfrequently happened that the whole weight of a passing load was thrown upon the centre suspension rods, and the extremities of the bearers were lifted up and relieved from all pressure. The extent of the expansion and contraction of the chains was a point of importance. In the Menai Bridge the main chains on a summer day would be as much as sixteen inches longer than in a winter’s night. At the Clifton Bridge the difference under similar circumstances would be about twenty inches. The whole expansion of the back chain beyond the pyramids must be thrown in to the suspended part. He would prefer having only one chain on each side of the bridge, and that chain much stronger than is usually adopted, but in deference to public opinion he had put two; he believed that they rarely expanded equally, and hence an unequal distribution of the weight of the roadways upon the suspension rods occurred. A rigid platform would in some degree prevent this, but he had endeavoured to lessen the effects of unequal expansion by arranging a stirrup at the top of each suspending rod, so as to hold equally at all times upon both the chains, and thus cause each to sustain its proportion of the load.

Mr. Seaward had never seen the force of wind exerted at regular intervals, as Mr. Cowper had supposed; if the gusts were repeated at such intervals, no suspension bridge, nor any elevated shaft or chimney in masonry, could resist them.

Mr. Rendel believed that the errors committed in the construction of suspension bridges had principally arisen from engineers theorizing too much on the properties of the catenary curve, without attending sufficiently to the practical effects of wind in the peculiar localities in which the bridges were placed. He could not agree wit hMr. Cowper in his view of the intermittent action of the wind, or the vibrating of the chains. Observation had led him to conclude that, in the positions in which suspension bridges were usually placed, the action of the wind was not uniform; for instance, it would act at the same moment on the upper side of one end of the roadway, and on the lower side at the other end. In this case, unless the platform possessed a certain degree of rigidity, undulation was induced and oscillation ensued. Braces and stays would not counteract this— nothing but a construction of platform, which made it in itself rigid by some mode of trussing, could withstand this kind of action. He agreed with Mr. Brunel in his idea of reducing the number of the suspending chains. At the Montrose Bridge, which was 432 feet span, he had endeavoured to avoid all complexity of contrivances by adopting a complete system of vertical diagonal trussing, which was ten feet deep—five feet above, and five feet below the platform— so as to insure rigidity, and to produce that solidity which was essential for preventing undulation and oscillation.

Mr.Cowper reverted to the motion which he had found to be so easily produced by repeatedly exerting a small force at measured intervals against the main chains of the Hammersmith Bridge.
He conceived that if the chain oscillated, the roadway must oscillate also.

Mr. Rendel contended that the motion produced by the impulses communicated by Mr.Cowper to the chain resolved itself into undulation, and not oscillation. He could not understand the advantages of the trussing adopted at the Hammersmith Bridge: it appeared to him that its tendency was, on the passage of a heavy weight, to relieve four out of five of the suspending rods from their due proportion of the load, and to throw it up on the fifth rod. His object in the construction of the framing of such platforms had always been to spread the load quite equally, and rendering it rigid by means of vertical trussed framing, to prevent the undulation which was the primary cause of oscillation. He would distinguish clearly between the two motions, and say, that undulation was motion in the direct line of the platform, and that oscillation was a motion at right angles with it. Vibration was identical with undulatory action.

Mr. Donkin conceived that a good system of trussed framing could alone prevent undulation or oscillation; if the framing were placed vertically, its tendency would be to prevent undulation; if placed horizontally, to prevent oscillation: now, as Mr. Rendel had given it as his opinion, that the latter action resulted from the former, the system of trussing adopted by him at the Montrose Bridge would appear calculated to obtain the desired end. A slight exertion of force would produce a perceptible undulation, and a certain degree of vibration would result from the natural elasticity of the materials.

Mr. Seaward remarked, that the degree of oscillation would appear to depend in some measure upon the distance at which the platform was suspended beneath the chains, and upon the distance between the points of suspension of the main chains; if the plat form was rigidly held at the extremities, the motion would be vibratory, and not amounting to undulation.

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