TODAY’S infrastructure projects are undoubtedly borne out of a flurry of electronic correspondence. But in the days before the Internet, planners, contractors, and investors, naturally had to correspond on paper. In digitising the original planning documents for several famous Scottish bridges, Autodocs got a fair idea just how long such paper-chases stretched.
Over the space of a year our team digitised the planning and building records for the Forth Road, Kingston, and Erskine bridges. This involved carefully handling all manner of records, from concrete estimates typed on thin paper to large scrolls that loomed as relics in the soft light of the scanning rooms.
Once dusted off, the Forth Road Bridge boxes were opened to reveal the delicate letters sent between designers Mott, Hay and Anderson and Freeman Fox and Partners and J.A.K Hamilton, chief engineer. The team at Autodocs never has time to read such documents beyond their headings; but the flow of forgotten letters distilled nonetheless a palpable sense of narrative.
Letters between designers and chief engineer abound, accompanied by disparate blueprints that gradually evolve into the structure we recognise at North Queensferry today. In correspondence too, estimations and enquiries give way to updates on construction which carry an increasing finality. Much like its eastern brother, the Erksine Bridge put pay to often overloaded and out-dated ferry services across important stretches of water. Manually typed letters from designer Dr William Brown to architect R.E. Slater, and engineers, show the acuteness of judgment and understanding in such a huge task. Indeed, when completed, the Erskine Bridge was the longest bridge in Europe.
The documents reveal a great deal about the wider context of bridge-building, delving far deeper than a Channel 5 repeat of “Megastructures” on a Sunday afternoon. The art and practice of bridge-building is very old but the engineering methods used in building the Erskine Bridge were cutting-edge. Ironically, however, it was the Erskine Bridge that finished any remaining notions of very large ships being built again on the Upper Clyde.
These beautiful records punctuate the tapestry of Scottish engineering and we digitise documents always with the importance of preservation in mind. The diagrams and documents might be so technical as to be meaningless to anyone without an engineering qualification, but they are of high use in educating future engineers. We are building our own bridge, wherein digital archives span the public consciousness and deliver us to a greater understanding of our national heritage.