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Daily Telegraph: JJC Bradfield - The visionary who built the Bridge

Published in the Daily Telegraph, 27/10/2014

WHEN Sydneysiders today travel over the Sydney Harbour Bridge, or on the underground rail loop in central Sydney, or on the electric train network which serves the Sydney metropolitan area, how many pause to think about the man we have to thank for these things?

Dr JJC Bradfield was a visionary Australian engineer who worked with enormous energy and vision to build the infrastructure which he foresaw that Sydney would need as it grew.

Today it is impossible to imagine Sydney without the Harbour Bridge. But it took many years of persistence and planning before Bradfield could bring his vision to life.

As early as 1903 Bradfield was making the case for the Sydney Harbour Bridge, in his presidential address as President of the Sydney University Engineering Society.

Having worked in the NSW Department of Public Works since 1893, Bradfield had developed considerable experience with projects around the state, such as Cataract Dam and Burrinjuck Dam. By 1909 he was promoted to assistant engineer, and in 1912 he appeared before the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Public Works to propose a bridge between the city and North Sydney.

Bradfield’s proposal — at that stage for a cantilever bridge between Dawes Point and Milsons Point — won the committee’s support and they recommended it be accepted. However, the First World War put a stop to these plans. While a bill to authorise the project passed the lower house of the NSW parliament in 1916, it failed to pass the upper house, on the grounds that funds should not be diverted from the war effort.

Vision above and beyond

Bradfield’s vision extended well beyond the bridge — he began advocating for Sydney’s suburban railway lines to be electrified. In a paper in 1917 he argued that this would open up new land for development and allow quicker transport and cheaper fares.

With the war over, Bradfield’s advocacy fell on more receptive political ears; in 1922 the Sydney Harbour Bridge Act was passed by the NSW Parliament.

Bradfield’s vision was laid out in the thesis he wrote for his doctorate of science degree in Engineering, the first ever awarded by Sydney University, in 1924. The title was, ‘The city and suburban electric railways and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.’

In the next ten years much of this vision would be realised. St James and Museum Stations were opened in 1926 and the Sydney Harbour Bridge was officially opened in 1932. Without Bradfield’s determination and persistence, Sydney might well have waited many years more for its Harbour Bridge, and our railway system might today be very different.

While Bradfield is best known for his work in Sydney, he made major contributions in other parts of Australia as well. He was the designer of the Story Bridge in Brisbane, opened in 1940. In his later years he proposed a major water diversion scheme in Queensland, involving dams on rivers near the coast and pipelines to take the water inland.

Many lessons

There are many lessons of great relevance to modern Australia that we can take from Bradfield’s life — in addition to the importance of tenacity and persistence.

First is the importance of long term planning for infrastructure. Bradfield was remarkably forward looking. In a paper he wrote in 1917, when Sydney’s population around 800,000, he predicted that Sydney’s population would reach over 2.2 million by 1950.

At the time this seemed extraordinary; in fact Bradfield was not far wrong, with Sydney reaching this number soon after 1960. Today, with Sydney’s population approaching 5 million, we can recognise his wisdom.

Bradfield’s vision produced infrastructure which has served generations of Sydneysiders — and will continue to do so for generations to come. Similar thinking underpins the plans of today’s federal and NSW Coalition governments for major infrastructure projects such as WestConnex and NorthConnex. Both are designed to meet Sydney’s needs for many years to come.

The Abbott Government has also taken the decision to proceed with a second Sydney airport. A world city needs world class airport facilities.

Far sighted

Most metropolitan areas the size of Sydney are served by more than one airport — and it is so important to have growth capacity for the future, something which an increasingly congested Kingsford Smith Airport will struggle to provide.

These far-sighted decisions are very much in the tradition of Dr Bradfield — and represent a sharp change from the attitude of former Labor Premier Bob Carr, who declared that ‘Sydney is full’. Under a succession of Labor Premiers the rate of new infrastructure projects slowed to a trickle — an approach that let down future generations.

The next lesson we can learn from Dr Bradfield is the importance of science, technology and engineering in contributing to our progress and prosperity as a nation. Too often we take for granted the technology we use which makes our lives better: fresh water abundantly available in every home, sewerage systems, electricity, telecommunications and the internet, medical technologies of all kinds and of course efficient transport services.

Yet these technologies are not introduced by accident. They require champions with the knowledge — and the vision — to see the benefits they will bring. Dr Bradfield built his expertise through his studies at Sydney University’s engineering faculty, where he was a brilliant student; and through his work in the Department of Public Works where he developed his skills and worked to understand what was happening in railway technology, and bridge building technology, around the world.

One vital area where Bradfield’s expertise came to the fore was the decision to proceed with an arch design rather than a cantilever design for the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Bradfield travelled overseas in 1921 to investigate possible suppliers of a bridge.

His original intention was to seek suppliers of a cantilever bridge, but what he learned on the trip convinced him that a steel arch bridge would have significant advantages over a cantilever bridge. In particular, the arch design was considerably stronger — an important consideration given the heavy loads the bridge was required to carry.

Bradfield therefore made sure that the 1922 Act of Parliament, which authorised the construction of the bridge, allowed for either a cantilever or an arch design. Another feature of the Act was that it provided for electrified railway tracks to run across the bridge — consistent with Bradfield’s broader vision which extended well beyond the bridge to include an electrified rail system for Sydney.

Tender loving care

Bradfield carefully oversaw the tender process, which called for tenders for either a cantilever or an arch bridge. Twenty tenders were received from companies around the world, and in 1924 the British firm of Dorman, Long & Co, with a steel arch design for the bridge, was chosen.

Many other outstanding Australian scientists and engineers have followed a similar approach to Bradfield, working carefully first to build their expertise and next to use that expertise to implement technology to the benefit of the whole community. Professor Graeme Clark at the University of Melbourne, for example, worked painstakingly to develop the cochlear implant in the 1970s.

Today Cochlear Ltd, the company formed to market this revolutionary hearing aid technology, sells it around the world and its annual sales exceed 800 million dollars a year. As a result thousands of lives have been transformed as people who were unable to hear can now enjoy the gift of hearing.

Australian scientists at CSIRO developed technology which is now used in hundreds of millions of wi-fi devices around the world. At the time CSIRO filed the first patent in the early nineties, nobody imagined that the internet would take off as it has, and consumers would have a need to send and receive data wirelessly in their homes.

Medical technologies, such as spray-on skin developed by burns specialist Dr Fiona Stanley, and the cervical cancer vaccine developed by Dr Ian Fraser, are saving lives around the world.

If we are to continue to enjoy the benefits of scientific and technological progress in Australia, we need several things. We need to maintain our high quality education system, both at school and university level, which produces people with the ability to develop and introduce new technological innovations — and we must ensure it stays open to all, based on ability and regardless of wealth.

Bradfield, for example, was born in humble circumstances; his father was a labourer. Yet he was able to go to good quality schools, and then based on his ability he got into university and did exceptionally well.

We also need vigorous activity in research — in universities, research institutions and in the private sector. The success stories I have mentioned — the cochlear implant, wi-fi, spray-on skin, the cervical cancer vaccine — only happened because of strong research capabilities in these areas.


That is one reason why the Abbott Government has a plan to build a Medical Research Future Fund of $20 billion. When this reaches its target size, it will generate annual income of around one billion dollars a year — roughly doubling the amount of money going into medical research in Australia each year.

Australia has strong capabilities in both pure medical research and in commercialising that research — but with more funding we should be able to take this area of strength and make it even stronger.

There is something else we need: the confidence to know that in Australia we can develop and implement world-beating technology. Here, again, JJC Bradfield should inspire us. He showed Australians that when we turn our mind to it we can be world leaders.

Bradfield’s plan to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge as an arch bridge was at the forefront of thinking anywhere in the world; at the time he proposed it technological developments in steelmaking were only just getting to the point where it was feasible to build such an arch out of steel.

When the Sydney Harbour Bridge was opened, it was the second longest steel arch bridge in the world, just behind the Bayonne Bridge in New Jersey in the US. (Bayonne was opened one year before and was 504 metres long, compared to the 503 metres of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.)

The Sydney Harbour Bridge was immediately, though, the largest single arch bridge in the world. It is higher above the water level than the Bayonne Bridge, and considerably wider, with six lanes of road traffic, two rail tracks and two tram tracks, compared to Bayonne’s two lanes of traffic each way.

Bradfield received many honours during and after his life, recognising his extraordinary contribution to Sydney and Australia. As well as university medals for his first degree and master’s degree in engineering, he was awarded the Peter Nicol Russell Medal by the Institute of Engineers Australia, and the Telford Gold Medal of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London in 1934.

Thanks to another honour bestowed upon Dr JJC Bradfield, I am proud to be able to claim a personal connection with him. Before the 1949 election, the number of electorates in the Australian Parliament was greatly expanded. A new electorate was created to cover Sydney’s Upper North Shore and given the name ‘Bradfield’ — and today I am fortunate to represent that electorate.

Dr JJC Bradfield was a particularly appropriate person after whom to name this new electorate. He was an extremely distinguished Australian who had died only a few years before, in 1943.

The crowning achievement of his life, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, had made an enormous difference to the North Shore of Sydney, providing a much easier connection to the city and the rest of the metropolitan area.

And Dr Bradfield had a longstanding personal association with the area, living at Gordon for many years — and he was buried in the graveyard at St John’s Church Gordon where he had worshipped regularly.

Very few people have had as much influence over the infrastructure of modern Sydney as Dr JJC Bradfield. He should be an inspiration to all Australians — and an example for us to follow as we plan for the future of our city and our nation.

Paul Fletcher is the Federal Member for Bradfield.