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On iron bridges, Thomas Paine, 1789

The political writer and democrat Thomas Paine (1737-1809) turned his interests to scientific experiment in the 1780s, partly through his longstanding acquaintance with Benjamin Franklin. Paine’s most important project was the design and modelling of a single span iron arch with which he intended to bridge the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania. Unable to finance the scheme, Paine took his idea to France, where he enlisted the aid of the American Minister Thomas Jefferson in promoting his design, potentially as a bridge across the Seine.

By the years 1788-1789, Paine finally managed to construct a full-scale bridge, with the assistance of the Walker Ironworks in Rotherham, England. In this letter to the Royal Society’s President, Sir Joseph Banks, Paine describes its engineering and something of bridge’s (and his) history. At one point the author refers to his famous American Revolutionary pamphlet Common sense (1776).

Paine’s engineering career died with the bridge, which slowly decayed until repossessed by the Walker Company. Within a year and in reaction to the developing French Revolution, he composed and published Rights of Man (1791).