Clifton Suspension Bridge

Bristol, England

The River Avon rises in the Cotswolds and falls about 500 feet (150 meters) in its 75-mile (120-kilometer) course to the Severn Estuary at Avonmouth. Near Bristol it passes through a channel that was cut in the nineteenth century to give access to oceangoing vessels, and then through the steep Clifton Gorge, where it is daringly crossed by the Clifton Suspension Bridge, 245 feet (75 meters) above the water. The iron structure, with a main span of 702 feet (214 meters), challenged conventional wisdom and pushed the new material and contemporary technology beyond the theoretical limits.

Bristol’s port of Avonmouth was a well-established center for coastwise and international shipping. As the nineteenth century saw accelerating growth in trade and economic prosperity, Bristol’s wealthier citizens wished to secure a market share for their city, and the renown that went with it, in the face of intense competition from such rivals as Liverpool. Perhaps they envied the prestigious bridge at (Conwy, Wales, and the Menai Suspension Bridge, both designed by the Scots engineer Thomas Telford. Funds were in hand to start the project: the Bristol wine merchant William Vick, who died in 1754, had bequeathed £1,000 to build a bridge across Clifton Gorge; the money had been accruing interest while held in trust.

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Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol, England; Isambard Kingdom Brunel, engineer, 1830–1864.

A design competition, announced in May 1830, attracted twenty-two entries, including four from the brilliant engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was then only twenty-four years old. The spans he proposed varied between 879 and 916 feet (267 and 279 meters); all were longer than any existing suspension bridge. The jury short-listed four designs (one of Brunel’s among them), before seeking Telford’s opinion. In an arrogant gesture he rejected all the