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Student Engineer Finds 'Structural Art' In 19th Century Bridges

April 10, 2005
Johns Hopkins University
To most people, a bridge is simply an assembly that allows travelers to move safely across a river or gorge. But to Christina Terpeluk, a Johns Hopkins senior from Chestertown, Md., a bridge can be a piece of structural art.

Civil engineering major Christina Terpeluk is studying 19th century American bridges, such as this Bollman truss structure in Savage, Md.
Credit: Photo by Will Kirk

To most people, a bridge is simply an assembly that allows travelers to move safely across a river or gorge. But to Christina Terpeluk, a Johns Hopkins senior from Chestertown, Md., a bridge can be a piece of structural art.

Supported by an undergraduate research grant from the university, Terpeluk has spent months studying 19th century American iron truss bridges, trying to determine whether they fit the definition of structural art, a concept championed by David P. Billington, a civil engineering scholar at Princeton. To qualify, a structure must be a work of elegance and efficiency that showcases its designer's engineering goals in a way that appeals to the eye.

For her project, Terpeluk has conducted detailed studies of three types of truss bridges built more than a century ago. The work has required the civil engineering major to run 21st century computer programs and pore through fragile 19th century manuscripts. Beyond the bridges' obvious role as transportation infrastructure, Terpeluk has explored their social, economic and symbolic values, trying to determine what the bridges meant to the communities they served.

She believes her research is opening new scholarly terrain. "There has been a lot of 'history of technology' material written about these bridges," she said. "But there is almost nothing about the connection between aesthetics and engineering in them. It surprised me how much I didn't know."

Structural art, as opposed to fine architecture, has become an intriguing new field of study, said Sanjay R. Arwade, assistant professor of civil engineering and Terpeluk's faculty research sponsor. An architect often designs pleasing shapes independent of the structural skeleton of a building, Arwade said. But in a work of structural art — the Eiffel Tower is a prime example — the engineering is fully visible, efficiently designed and aesthetically pleasing in its own right. "A main idea," he said, "is that you should be able to look at the structure and 'read' it from an engineering standpoint."

Terpeluk's affection for bridges dates back to her freshman year at Johns Hopkins, when an introductory class required her to build a sturdy model bridge out of spaghetti strands and glue. She enjoyed the experience so much that she promptly switched her major from general engineering to civil engineering.

Later, after taking a course called "Perspectives on the Evolution of Structures," co-taught by Arwade, Terpeluk decided to apply the structural art standard to 19th century American iron truss bridges. Truss bridges use a latticework of triangles to handle the forces of tension and compression when a vehicle passes over them. After a long period in which wooden bridges dominated the American landscape, 19th century engineers began competing to design more efficient, less expensive iron truss bridges, primarily for railroads.

Terpeluk focused on three of these bridge designs — the Whipple, Fink and Bollman trusses — and studied examples that were built in Frederick, Md.; Hamden, N.J.; and Savage, Md. She used a computer program to conduct structural analyses of the bridges and employed traditional research tools to delve into the social, economic and symbolic background of the structures. "At the [university's] Peabody Library, I found documents from that time period, focusing on bridge design," she said. "It was an awesome experience."

In addition, while completing an internship at a London engineering firm last summer, she was able to visit a number of truss bridges in the British Isles. That enabled her to draw comparisons between British and American bridges from the same period. Terpeluk hopes to publish her findings in a peer- reviewed journal or present them at an engineering conference. "I've learned a lot about doing research," she said. "It's not an easy task."

After graduating in May, she plans to attend graduate school and prepare for a career involving the restoration or rehabilitation of historic structures.

On March 10, Steven Knapp, university provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, will host the 12th annual Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards ceremony, which honors the 45 winners who conducted their projects in the summer and fall of 2004. Since 1993, about 40 students each year have received PURA grants of up to $3,000 to conduct original research, some results of which have been published in professional journals. The awards, funded through a donation from the Hodson Trust, are an important part of the university's commitment to research opportunities for undergraduates.

The Johns Hopkins University is recognized as the country's first graduate research university, and has been in recent years the leader among the nation's research universities in winning federal research and development grants. The opportunity to be involved in important research is one of the distinguishing characteristics of an undergraduate education at Johns Hopkins.

The Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards program provides one of these research opportunities, open to students in each of the university's four schools with full-time undergraduates: the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, the Whiting School of Engineering, the Peabody Conservatory and the School of Nursing.

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Materials provided by Johns Hopkins University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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Johns Hopkins University. "Student Engineer Finds 'Structural Art' In 19th Century Bridges." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 April 2005. <>.
Johns Hopkins University. (2005, April 10). Student Engineer Finds 'Structural Art' In 19th Century Bridges. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 25, 2017 from
Johns Hopkins University. "Student Engineer Finds 'Structural Art' In 19th Century Bridges." ScienceDaily. (accessed February 25, 2017).