The first person to have envisioned the Sydney Harbour Bridge – make that the first person on record to have envisioned the Sydney Harbour Bridge; it’s entirely possible that Aboriginal communities came up with a similar concept many millennia earlier – was convict architect, Francis Greenway, back in 1815.
Australia was a prison colony at the time, and the emancipated Francis Greenway (Francis, convicted of forgery, took transportation to Australia as his punishment) went on to became Australia’s first starchitect – his works include St James’ Church, First Government House, and Hyde Park Barracks.
Francis Greenway also has the honour of being the only convicted criminal in the world to have had his portrait depicted on a bank note – his face was featured on the Australian $10 note from 1966 to 1993.
Needless to say, his proposal for a bridge crossing of Sydney Harbour went unrealised. Australia, at the time, had neither the skills, the capital, the technology, nor the manpower to pull off such a feat.
Additional proposals were put forward in 1840, 1857, 1879, and 1880; but none made it past the drawing board. In 1900 the Lyne government got serious about the idea of building a Sydney Harbour Bridge, and, after hosting an international competition, selected a suspension bridge for its design.
But an economic downturn meant that the proposal never saw the light of day.
John Bradfield – a man affectionately remembered as the Father of the Bridge for his efforts at getting the Sydney Harbour Bridge built; he also has the Bradfield Highway named after him, which, at 2.5km, is one of the shortest highways in Australia – was appointed chief engineer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge project in 1914. He believed a slim cantilever bridge would span the harbour quite nicely. A bill was passed by the NSW government supporting the project.
Finally, after many, many years in the planning, it appeared that the Sydney Harbour Bridge would be built. Then WWI erupted, and the money intended for the bridge was diverted elsewhere.
In 1921 the project found momentum once again. Bradfield, meanwhile, had changed his mind about the bridge type, and now thought an arch bridge was preferable – in particular an arch bridge that looked very much like Hell Gate Bridge in New York City.
Sydney Harbour Bridge
Construction began in 1923. It was an enormous gamble, financially and technically; it was going to be a feat of engineering unlike anything that had been done before. The bridge gained the nickname the Iron Lung for providing employment to an enormous workforce throughout the Great Depression.
Arch construction began in 1928. Each side of the arch was kept upright through the aid of hundreds of giant steel cables that were fixed to the ground on either shore. When the arch construction was completed, the steel cables were severed, one-by-one, and the two sides of the arch slowly came together. On 19 August 1930 the two sides of the arch touched for the first time. That night, as the steel cooled and shrunk, the two halves of the arch split apart. The following morning the cables were loosened again; the two sides have remained joined ever since.
The bridge opened on the 19th of March 1932.
There is a common misconception that hundreds of workers died during the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and that people fell to their death each and every day of the build. In fact there were a total of 16 deaths during the nine years of construction, only two of which resulted from falls.
At the time of opening the Sydney Harbour Bridge was the longest single span arch bridge in the world (as of 2017 it has dropped to the 6th longest). At opening it was also the widest bridge in the world (it is still the 2nd widest bridge in the world, it only lost the title to the Port Mann Bridge in Vancouver in 2012), and, at 134 metres in height, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was – and remains – the tallest steel arch bridge in the world.