Thomas Paine had many talents beyond writing, but the most surprising and under-appreciated was his aptitude for engineering.
Following the American triumph in the War of Independence, Paine became encumbered with financial issues that plagued him for many years. As I point out in my new book, Thomas Paine: A Lifetime of Radicalism, the primary way he intended to mitigate this hurdle was an attempt to begin a new career as a bridge builder.
However, much like his radical political ideas, Paine shunned all conventions when it came to this field as well. This is because he favored using iron over all other materials.
Up to that time, bridges in the Western world were almost exclusively built with stone or wood. In the latter case, tall trees were processed, turned into beams, and used as supports to prop up platforms that connected land masses. Wooden arches provided an invaluable asset for humanity but suffered from the disadvantage of being vulnerable to damage and requiring regular repairs. Their stone counterparts mostly avoided these limitations but required much more labor to build and often constricted water flow. In 1785, the mere idea of replacing either substance with iron was a novel idea that challenged engineering norms.
Paine was not the first person in the world to conceive of the utility of iron bridges, as such a structure was built over the River Severn in England in 1779. However, virtually no one in North America had knowledge of its existence or utility, and as such, Paine’s commitment to erecting such a bridge in North America had him standing at the forefront of a new frontier in engineering.
With the help of a business partner, John Hall, Paine labored to gain approval to build an iron bridge over the Harlem River on a tract of land owned by Gouverneur Morris, but failed to do so due to Morris’ lack of interest in the project. Ironically, Morris would become one of the penman’s most bitter political foes. Nevertheless, Paine and Hall persisted, lobbying the Pennsylvania government to have an iron bridge built over the Schuylkill River. They even displayed a scale model of their design in the home of Benjamin Franklin for interested parties to view. Paine’s designs gained the praise of polymath Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that “the execution of the arch design far exceeds your expectations,” and even provided his own list of suggestions for improving Paine’s bridge.
Despite the endorsement of Jefferson, Paine’s attempt to lobby Pennsylvania for support failed, discouraging the aspiring engineer greatly and convincing him to bring his trade to Europe. In the late 1780s, Paine traveled between England and France in an attempt to gain financial backers for his project. After several setbacks, he eventually gained the support of Thomas Walker enabling him to build a test bridge in England. Paine’s iron prototype was completed in September 1791, and was placed near Lisson Green in the Marylebone district in London. To secure the group’s monetary commitment, Paine put up for collateral his property in New Rochelle, his house in Bordentown, and $1,000 in stock in the Bank of Philadelphia. In addition, he borrowed money from several friends, including Jefferson.
Despite a large number of visitors and Paine’s efforts to promote the model, however, it failed to receive positive attention from the press. The iron prototype, which was also largely ignored by academic circles and potential financiers, was taken down after a year of failed attempts to attract funding. By that time, Paine had given up his attempt to market the venture. “The bridge has been put up,” he told Hall, “but being on wood butments they yielded, and it is now taken down.” By that time, he had shifted his attention to “a political bridge.”
My book, Thomas Paine: A Lifetime of Radicalism, divulges what Paine meant by a “political bridge,” and covers his foray into iron engineering in depth. Paperback, hardcover, and personalization options are all available!