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William Howe

(Engineer, Bridge Builder & Inventor of the Howe Bridge Truss)


Born: May 12, 1803 in Spencer, Mass.

Died: Sept. 19, 1852 in Springfield, Mass.



You can’t talk about William Howe until you understand his relationship to Amasa Stone. As you know, Amasa Stone was the builder and designer of the all iron Howe Truss Ashtabula Bridge. While Stone was still a teenager, William Howe married Amasa Stone's older sister and became his brother-in-law. 


When Amasa Stone was seventeen years old he began working with his older brother Daniel Stone in a construction apprenticeship. After two years Amasa Stone set out on his own to build churches and homes.

In the winter of 1837 Amasa Stone attended the academy of Professor Bailey in Worcester, Mass. having saved enough from his small wages to pay the expense of a single term. In 1839 when Stone was twenty-one, he engaged William Howe to act as foreman in the erection of two church edifices and several houses in Warren, Massachusetts. 

Besides being a builder, Howe was a talented inventor and bridge engineer. At about the same time Amasa Stone had joined him Howe had begun experimenting with a new kind of bridge. Howe, who was always on the lookout for ideas, was examining the structure of an old church in the neighboring town of Brookfield when his attention was attracted to the truss supporting the roof. After studying the truss an idea struck him! He then set out for Warren, Massachusetts, where the Boston and Albany Railroad was confronted with the problem of crossing a good-sized stream. At the time, a light, cheap and substantial type of bridge had not yet evolved though it was sorely needed by the pioneer railway engineers of that day.

Howe met with Captain W. H. Swift, of the United States Engineer Corps, who was acting as chief engineer for the railroad company and explained his new idea in bridges.  Howe had ingeniously redesigned the 1830 truss patent of Stephen H. Long to receive his own patent in August of 1840. Howe's innovation replaced the vertical tension members in Long's truss (elements that required precise shaping by expert timber framers) with threaded wrought iron rods. Cast iron bearing blocks were inserted in the top and bottom chords to prevent crushing the wood when nuts on the ends of the rods were tightened down. Not only was Howe's design strong, it had a profound effect on the ease of bridge fabrication and erection.


After seeing the plans, Captain Swift was so impressed he gave the genius from Spencer the job of building the bridge. Soon, it was accomplished to the entire satisfaction of the captain and the railroad company.

In 1842 the Chief Engineer of the Western Railroad, George Washington Whistler, recognized William Howe’s superior design and used the Howe system to redesign the Connecticut River Bridge. William Howe and Amasa Stone were contracted to build it and would install a bridge that would span the 1,264 feet of the Connecticut River using six piers and seven truss spans of 180-feet each. When the bridge was completed in July of 1841, it gained the attention of the world.
The Howe Truss embodied a transformative event in U.S. bridge building history. Soon the Howe Truss would become the most popular rail bridge design in the world. Not only were they built in the United States, but they were also built in Russia, Austria and Germany.

The time Stone spent with Howe was fruitful. At the age of twenty-four, Stone enlisted the financial support of Azariah Boody and purchased the patent rights from Howe, added his own improvement in the truss design, and began building railroad bridges on his own. It was then, through Stones own sweat and ingenuity, that he began to amass his fortune as one of America's most prolific bridge builders.


William Howe’s invention brought him a large fortune, though he did not live long to enjoy it, for he died in 1852.







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