THE HISTORY, LOCATIONS AND DESIGN OF ICONIC SUSPENSION BRIDGES
DESIGNED IN SCOTLAND AND FOUND ALL OVER THE WORLD
ABOUT THE HARPER BRIDGES
Between 1870 and 1910, Harpers of Aberdeen built sixty suspension bridges over river, railway and ravine throughout the UK and the British Empire. The company began as fencing specialists but developed a unique system of suspension that allowed their light footbridges to be rigid and stable. John Harper was the first to employ steel wire rope, now a universal feature of modern suspension bridges. The simple but elegant construction - and the ease with which the bridges could be shipped and assembled - meant that they became vital infrastructure for communities from Moray to Mumbai, from Teeside to Transkei.
For the last ten years, John Harper's great-grandson Douglas Harper has been travelling across the globe, finding the bridges that remain, investigating their history and understanding the evolution and ingenuity of their design.
The research has been informed by company documents, photographs from the Harper Archive at Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums, the University of Aberdeen (George Washington Wilson Collection) and from individuals identified in the text. Their contributions are gratefully acknowledged. The research goes on and this site will be updated as new information (including corrections) becomes available.
This site includes details of Harper Bridges found in Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland, Estonia, India, Nepal, the West Indies, Malaysia and South Africa. It explores the history of the Harper engineering business and the details of the design and construction, as well as the industrial archaeology that continues to provide valuable insights for engineers and conservation specialists.
The comprehensive story of the Harper Bridges can be found in River, Railway & Ravine: foot suspension bridges for Empire by Douglas Harper. Available here
John Harper was an innovator, inventing or applying principles not in general use and using materials just becoming available. In addition, he sent his bridges worldwide in kit form, with a single sheet of instructions to guide local engineers or tradesmen.
His was a new method of suspension which depended on principles related to ‘tension, suspension and arch’. His son Louis, a qualified civil engineer and architect, built upon this legacy as the design evolved.
John Harper, originally a fencer, ‘knew how to tension wire’ and his first tensioner for fences was patented in 1863. Seven years later he was building bridges up to 300 feet span using the same technology, using a newly available material possibly for the first time – steel wire rope – in a way that provided stability and allowed a lightweight structure in place of the heavy cast iron chains and massive towers of the early century.
Click on the links below for more information