In ancient times and among primitive peoples a log was thrown across a stream, or two vines or woven fibrous ropes (the upper for a handhold and the lower for a footwalk) were thrown across, to serve as a bridge. Later, arched structures of stone or brick were used; traces of these, built from 4000 to 2000 B.C., have been found in the E Mediterranean region. The Romans built long, arched spans, many of which are still standing. Bridges built during the Middle Ages usually rested on crude stone arches with heavy piers (intermediate supports) that were a great obstruction to river traffic, and their roadways were often lined with small shops.
The best known early American design is the New England covered bridge, since wood was abundant and cheap, and did not demand trained masons. Colonial American bridge builders were willing to run the risk of rot or fire in exchange for such savings in time and manpower. Beginning with Abraham Darby's bridge at Coalbrookdale in 1779, most bridges began to be built of cast and wrought iron. Robert Stephenson, an English engineer, designed and built a bridge of this type across Menai Strait in North Wales (1850). Another is Victoria Bridge across the St. Lawrence at Montreal. The disadvantage of cast iron for bridges is its low tensile strength.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.