Design Insights: Are you this badass?

I got new insight into design today during an after-dinner walk with my lady. We’d eaten at a fish house dive, the Webster Fish Hook (good place, by the by), at the foot of the Coolidge Bridge in Northampton, MA. Across the street is the old Norowottock bridge, a cast-iron railroad span over the Connecticut River that once carried a rail line into Hadley, Amherst, Worcester and eventually Boston. It’s part of the regional rails-to-trails program, and we’ve walked it before,

Tonight, in deep dusk but not yet true night, it became clear to my lady that the bridge is slanted. She is frightened by bridges. Terrified of them, really. They cause her to breathe in the frightened way that people do when they know the monster is about to leap out of the hiding place under the stairs in the horror movie, but then oh look it was only a kitty cat and THEN the monster leaps out from under the stairs, sort of way.

Anyway, the bridge is slanted. This much is obvious to my lady. The trails deck we’re standing on is not, of course, but that only makes the slanted frame of the bridge itself much more alarming. “is it damaged? About to fall over? Why isn’t it level, or square?” Further mysteries reveal themselves as we turn around on the far shore and walk back to our car. the frame of the bridge gently twists, leaning downstream on the west side of the river, straightening over the middle, and leaning upstream on the eastern shore.

We know, from walking the Northampton side of the rails-to-trails, that the old railroad bed curved to the south, joining the Northampton line and arriving at the station at the southeast end of Main Street. On the east side of the river, there’s a long, slow curve to Amherst across the alluvial plains of Hadley.

And in a flash, I saw it. So elegant, so beautiful. Trains can’t take right turns. Their tracks have to have long arcs and broad, slow changes in direction. They need to gently angle the loads on their cars into the curves, so as not to unbalance the train. The curves, and the weight distribution, need to be worked out long in advance. Rivers have to be crossed in straight lines, too; curved bridges are inefficient.

Do you see it yet? Possibly you do, probably you don’t. Words are so inefficient for explaining this sort of thing. I tried to take pictures, but by the time I had my Insight it was full dark. The insight was still clear enough to hold onto while I drove home, though, and still cooking when I decided to share it with you.

The bridge is angled, twisted, even, as a mediation between the curve in one direction on the Northampton side, and the curve in the other direction on the Hadley/Amherst/Boston side. The slight twist in the bridge would have supported the weight of freight cars gradually shifting over from leaning southwards around the curve from Northampton, to leaning northwards on the curve to Amherst. Trains coming in the other direction would have been directed by the tracks and the bridge frame together, to flip it heir weight southwards, in preparation for the curving turn into Northampton.

In other words, over a distance of some ten or twelve miles, the bridge was one part of an elaborately thought-out system for moving cargo from one side of the Connecticut River to the other — shifting its weight, turning around curves, dealing with hills and mountains, and more. Our designers today work on very small scales: microchips and hand-held devices. These 19th century designers figured out how to avoid toppling cargo and passengers into the river sixty feet below them. They used gravity to ease their train’s path and get it around right corners, curves, and planes.

Realizing all of this, I had renewed respect for the designers and engineers of the past. I doubt. I could build anything as elegant as an iPad or a railroad line — but maybe we should use both as examples of the extraordinary complexity which human minds are able to resolve through the application of design principles.

Would that more of us were that badass as designers.

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