October Birthday Recalls 19th Century Civil Engineer’s Innovation: The Fink Truss

November 3, 2014

Albert Fink

October marked the anniversary of the birth of Albert Fink (1827-1897), a German-born civil engineer best known for his railroad bridge designs in the U.S. and the development of the truss that bears his name.

The Fink Truss design, patented in 1854, helped the Fink Truss Bridge gain widespread popularity in the 1850s and 1860s, which represents a critical period in the evolution of civil engineering in America. With railroads expanding dramatically, a replacement for wooden bridges was needed that could be built quickly, cheaply, and with a reasonable assurance that it would survive for an extended length of time. Fink’s design combined elementary principles of bridge design with a practical application of then-available materials (cast and wrought iron) for the most efficient solution to building long-span bridges quickly and economically.

Albert Fink was born in Lauterbach, Hesse, Germany, on October 27, 1827, the son of architect Andres Fink and Margaret (Jacob) Fink. He received his education at the Polytechnic School at Darmstadt, and graduated in 1848 with honors in engineering and architecture. Unsympathetic with the forces that triumphed in the German revolution of 1848, Fink immigrated to the U.S. in 1849 and entered the drafting office of the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad, under Chief Engineer Benjamin Latrobe.

In his position at the B&O RR, Fink oversaw the design and construction of bridges, stations, and repair shops for the section of the railroad that ran from Grafton, Virginia, to Moundsville, Virginia (now West Virginia). During this period he invented the Fink Truss, which was first used in 1852 for the bridge over the Monongahela at Fairmont, Virginia, (now West Virginia), the longest bridge in North America in its time.

In 1857, Fink began an 18-year career with the Louisville and Nashville (L&N) Railroad. During this time, Fink oversaw the construction of numerous bridges, including the Green River Bridge in Munfordville, Kentucky, which was then the longest iron bridge in the nation; a bridge in Nashville, Tennessee, over the Cumberland; and one over the Ohio at Louisville, Kentucky, which at 1 mile in length was the longest truss bridge of its time. During the Civil War, much of the property of the L&N was destroyed, and it fell to Fink to carry out the reconstruction work.

Green River Bridge partially destroyed in the Civil War

The Green River Bridge was partially destroyed in the Civil War.

After the Civil War, Fink focused his attention on the economics of transportation and became known as the father of railway economics and statistics through his work in publishing information regarding the real cost of transportation. His report of 1874, generally known as “The Fink Report on Cost of Transportation,” is regarded as the foundation of American railway economics.

By the mid-1870s, as bridge building grew more sophisticated and steel emerged as a material better suited to bridge construction, Fink’s through-truss bridges were eclipsed. When he retired in 1875, Fink received an offer from the newly formed Southern Railway and Steamship Association. Widespread conflict persisted among the railroads in America and the association recognized the need for a negotiator whose respect among the railroad leaders was unquestioned. Fink agreed to work with over two dozen southern railroad companies to help them resolve their issues. His efforts were successful, resulting in stable freight tariffs on which the American public could depend.

In 1880, Fink served as President of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He died on April 3, 1897, in Sing Sing (now Ossining), New York, and is interred at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky.

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