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  • Building Bridges and BoundariesThe Lattice and the Tube, 1820–1860
  • Gregory K. Dreicer (bio)

Questions about technology and nationality smoldered in the nineteenth century, as they do in the twenty-first, when labels of origin—"Made in America,""Made in China"—still hide as much as they reveal. Globalization, presented today as new, flourished in the 1800s, thanks to growing networks of transportation and communication.1 Within these networks, technologists and their chroniclers participated in the construction of the conceptual and physical infrastructure of the modern nation-states.2 They built national identity along with bridges and railroads; with identity came reputation and opportunity. Claims regarding national character and technological significance supported each other. Nationalist perspectives intensified as infrastructure enabled quicker and easier connections across the globe. [End Page 126]

The classification of technologies as local or foreign reinforces beliefs about national character and the workings of the inventive process. Technology transfer narratives, for example, balance on the idea that invention originates within individuals bounded by "national culture" and spreads like the rays of the sun to individuals in other nations.3 Within the transfer framework, categories such as British and American, inventor and borrower, and wood and iron become substitutes for critical analysis. Taken without examination, a web of such categories enables technology's storytellers to portray creation myths, nationalist ideologies, and borders as unchanging and inevitable. These identities strengthen professional and political power structures.

Viewing invention as an identity-building activity, however, demonstrates the ambiguity of categories and highlights their cultural roles. Exploring the construction of identity means investigating the people with the authority to engineer the world and make money and history along with it. Treating a label as fluid rather than fixed re-orients nationalistic and progress-oriented accounts of technological change.

This article examines debates between the technologists who reinvented building with the erection of thousands of lattice bridges (in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere), and the developers of the tubular bridge,who built four (in Wales, England, and Canada). As they considered which type of bridge to build, engineers developed an essential component of the world, the I-beam. Based on primary and historical accounts, this article places a "British" icon, the tube, within the context of its creation: a multinational landscape shaped by an "American" invention, the lattice. It looks at mid-nineteenth century engineers defining technological—that is, cultural—boundaries while developing the fundamentals of industrial production.

The Lattice Phenomenon

An "improvement in the construction of wood and iron bridges" was registered with the U.S. Patent Office on 28 January 1820 by Ithiel Town [End Page 127] (1784–1844) of New Haven and New York, who subsequently became one of the most well-known engineer-architects in the United States.4 Town's 1820 and 1835 patents (figs. 1 and 2) for a lattice bridge described a structure that was neither arched nor suspended (as most long spans were) and was designed for manufacture on a mass scale. This framework, with parallel top and bottom chords, contained a lattice of multiple diagonally intersecting planks pegged at the intersections.5 It was relatively simple to fabricate and construct, and it allowed long distances to be spanned with relatively short members. The lattice bridge was an industrial milestone that altered the thinking of technologists and helped transform the global landscape.

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Fig. 1.

Ithiel Town, lattice bridge patent, 28 January 1820. (Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.)

In the decades following the granting of the 1820 lattice patent, inventors, engineers, and theorists responded—by building it, altering it, condemning it, and using it as an inspiration to create new structures and to devise methods of structural analysis. The dissemination of the lattice concept was enhanced by the growth in technical publishing that took place [End Page 128] during the nineteenth century and that facilitated the border-crossing exchange of ideas. The international shipment of U.S. publications was not unusual during an era of popular and professional curiosity about all aspects of American life. Moreover, the lattice bridge design was well suited for graphic reproduction. In comparison to the existing frame systems, it...


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pp. 126-163
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