- Engineering & Materials
- Ellet, Charles (1810–1862)
Ellet, Charles (1810–1862)
U.S. civil engineer who designed the first wire-cable suspension bridge in the United States and became known as the “American Brunel.”
Ellet was born at Penn's Manor, Pennsylvania, on January 1, 1810. Ellet's career began when he was appointed as a surveyor and assistant engineer on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in 1828, where he remained for three years. He then went to Europe and enrolled as a student at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, and continued to gather experience by studying the various engineering works taking place in France, Germany, and the U.K.
He returned to the United States in 1832 and submitted to Congress a proposal for a 305-m/1,000-ft suspension bridge over the Potomac River at Washington, D.C., but the plan was too advanced for its time and failed to receive government support. In 1842, over the Schuylkill River at Fairmount, Pennsylvania, he built his first wire-cable suspension bridge. Ellet introduced there a technique that was common in France, that of binding small wires together to make the cables; five of these latter supported the bridge at each side, the span being 109 m/358 ft.
Between 1846 and 1849 he designed and built for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad a single-span bridge, crossing the Ohio River at Wheeling, West Virginia. The central span of 308 m/1,010 ft was then the longest ever built. However the bridge failed under wind forces in 1854 because of its overall aerodynamic instability. Ellet's towers remained standing, and the rest of the bridge was rebuilt by John Roebling (1806–1869), who later achieved fame with his own record-breaking activities in building long-span suspension bridges of wire cable of his own manufacture. (In 1956 the Wheeling Bridge was again under repair; Ellet's towers and anchorages and Roebling's cables and suspenders were retained, but the deck was entirely renewed.)
In 1847 Ellet received a contract to build a bridge over the Niagara River, only 3.2 km/2 mi below the falls. The result was a light suspension structure, and Ellet subsequently claimed to be the first person to cross the Niagara Gorge on the back of a horse (thanks to the bridge). This was, however, to prove to be another enterprise that turned sour for its promoter. A dispute over money led Ellet to resign in 1848, leaving the project uncompleted.
Following the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Ellet produced a steam-powered ram that was used by the Union (Northern) forces with decisive effect against the Confederate army on the Mississippi River. In June 1862 Ellet personally led a fleet of nine of these rams in the Battle of Memphis. The Union side was victorious, but in the course of the fighting Ellet was fatally wounded. He died in Cairo, Illinois, on June 21, 1862.
From the Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography, © RM, 2020. All rights reserved. Published under license in AccessScience, © McGraw-Hill Education, 2000–2020. Helicon Publishing is a division of RM.