pontoon, one of a number of floats used chiefly to support a bridge, to raise a sunken ship, or to float a hydroplane or a floating dock. Pontoons have been built of wood, of hides stretched over wicker frames, of copper or tin sheet metal sheathed over wooden frames, of aluminum, and of steel. The original and widespread use was to support temporary military bridges. Cyrus the Great built (536 B.C.) the earliest pontoon bridge in history, using skin-covered pontoons. However, Homer mentions pontoon bridges as early as c.800 B.C. The U.S. army began experimenting with rubber pontoons in 1846 and in 1941 adopted collapsible floats of rubber fabric with steel-tread roadways. At the same time the navy developed box pontoons of light, welded steel for ship-to-shore bridges during landing operations. These box pontoons could be assembled into bridges, docks, causeways and, by adding a motor, into self-propelling barges. Permanent civilian pontoon bridges have been built where the water is deep and the water level fairly constant or controllable, often also where the crossing is narrow or where the bottom makes it difficult to sink piers. The modern permanent pontoon is composed of many compartments, so that if a leak occurs in one compartment, the pontoon will not sink. Permanent pontoons are fastened together and several anchors are dropped from each. Often a section of a bridge built on them can swing aside to let a ship pass. Several pontoon bridges have been built across the Mississippi River. Pontoons for raising sunken ships are watertight cylinders that are filled with water, sunk, and fastened to the submerged ship; when emptied by compressed air, they float the ship to the surface. A pontoon lifeboat consists of a raft supported by watertight cylinders.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.