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From the Editor: Engineering Allows You To Be Part of History

Robert Schickel on March 31, 2021 - in Articles, Column

The COVID-19 pandemic has created blocks of time that we didn’t previously have. For some of us, it’s the time we used to spend commuting. For others, it’s the time we spent shopping or attending cultural events. For me, it has created time to catch up on some reading. I will admit that in the past, I haven’t read every word of every issue of Informed Infrastructure. Now, with all this “extra” time, I’m much closer to getting every word.

I read with great interest a recent article on the magazine’s website about the repair of the 500-year-old Shanghai Huanqing Bridge in China. Can you imagine working on this project? What a challenge and, indeed, privilege to be a part of that type of history!

I’d like to use this issue’s column to relate a past experience and explain a little about why I loved being a civil engineer.

The First Assignment

For my first assignment upon accepting a position in the Steel Section of the Bridge Design Department of the Indiana Department of Highways, I was asked to prepare plans for repairing a steel-truss bridge hit by a truck that was a bit too tall for the vertical clearance provided by the sway frames. I had just started work a few days before, and, not only did I not know how to repair a bridge, I didn’t even know the process from assignment through completed work. I had several questions:

• Where is the bridge? Near Fort Wayne.

• How do I get there? Check out a state vehicle.

• Do I have to draw up a sketch when I get there? No, use this Polaroid camera.

• Today? Yes, today.

Luckily, a more-experienced engineer came with me, but I had to do the driving. Upon arriving at the structure, it became obvious the truck was too tall and had hit the first two sway (cross) frames, bending them and pulling the vertical members in toward the roadway where they were attached. There didn’t appear to be any immediate danger (according to the experienced engineer), so all we needed to do was assess the damage, get a few measurements and take some photos. That meant, of course, climbing up the verticals.

This is precisely when I knew being a civil engineer was going to be alright. In college, the structural analysis class taught you how a truss works: how the load of the vehicle moves from the deck through the members, causing tension here and compression there; the load getting to the bearings, the abutments and finally into the earth. It was amazing to learn how that works and even more amazing to marvel at the engineers who developed these systems.

But to be up in the truss and able to feel the steel members respond to a vehicle driving across the bridge was a completely higher level of understanding of the science of engineering. I wanted to stay there for a while, but there was the matter of measurements and photos. And it was a couple of hours drive back to Indianapolis (after we found a good place for lunch).

During the next few days, I looked up the plans for the existing structure and reconciled the field measurements we had taken. Then I decided on how much of the existing structure should be cut out and replaced, developed a construction sequence and drew up the plans.

All the design and drafting work was a great learning experience, and it felt good to be able to put that 90-year-old structure back in service. But nothing compared to hanging onto the truss about 16 feet above the roadway, feeling the vibrations and listening to the sounds of the bridge doing its job of transferring the loads put upon it into the ground.

Experience the Experience

Although my truss bridge isn’t nearly as old as the aforementioned bridge in China, it’s a part of history. In developing plans for its repair, I gained a respect not only for the bridge but for those who created it. I’m sure some Informed Infrastructure readers have had moments when you became aware of how important history is in engineering and how personal engineering can feel.

This is only one reason why I loved being an engineer, and it’s my hope that all engineers can have a similar experience.

About Robert Schickel

Robert Schickel was born in New Jersey and received his BS in Civil Engineering degree in 1971 from Valparaiso University in Indiana. His career started as a bridge design engineer and expanded to include design of various transportation facilities, including highways, bridges, rail lines and stations, and airport runways. Mr. Schickel managed engineering offices ranging from 20 to 140 people. He also served as a consultant to a large utility company. Mr. Schickel currently resides in Indiana and serves as Adjunct Professor for the College of Engineering at Valparaiso University. He enjoys his retired life at his lake house, playing golf, listening to music and spending time with his family, especially his grandchildren.

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