On this day* in 1870, laborers broke ground for the Brooklyn Bridge. Construction would continue for more than a decade, until finally, in 1883, the span opened to the public, a triumph associated with its designers, John and Washington Roebling. It was, at that time, the longest suspension bridge in the world.

The Brooklyn Bridge is a technical marvel, an achievement of unparalleled ingenuity and good fortune. It would not have been possible without steel, the miracle material of the day. Nor could it have been completed without the labor of hundreds of workers, including more than twenty men who died building it.

But if the bridge can be celebrated as an engineering icon, an architectural treasure, or a monument to American labor, it may be even more interesting as a cultural touchstone, the best example of what Perry Miller, Leo Marx, and John Kasson have all called the “technological sublime.” David Nye later borrowed that phrase from Marx, his teacher, when he wrote this book. In it, Nye suggests that:

In a physical world that is increasingly desacralized, the sublime represents a way to reinvest the landscape and the works of men with transcendent significance.

The sublime, Nye argues, was particularly important for early-nineteenth century Americans. Casting about for a way to define a nation seemingly bereft of any history and culture — Indians had no written records; plus, they were savages and so didn’t count — many Americans turned to the natural landscape, celebrating environmental features such as Niagara Falls, the Mississippi River, or, somewhat later, the Rockies as evidence that God favored their young republic.

By the Jacksonian period, though, Americans increasingly venerated features of the built as well as natural environments. They celebrated the emerging technologies that were, in their words, able to annihilate space and time — steamboats, canals, and railroads — bringing far-removed places into relatively close proximity. The Erie Canal, a hybrid landscape, for instance, symbolized how human creativity could complete God’s seemingly unfinished work, linking New York’s coast with the Great Lakes. Boosters tried to hide the hard work that underlay such endeavors, a strategy intended to increase the impact of the technological sublime.

After the Civil War, Americans especially venerated bridges being built around the nation, artifice that literally knit an increasingly pluralistic people together. James Eads spanned the Mississippi at St. Louis, opening his masterpiece to much patriotic fanfare on July 4, 1874. But no bridge of the era was more renowned or beloved than the one that crossed the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan.

In 1883, Brooklyn’s mayor, Seth Low, employed rhetoric that had become relatively common when Americans praised their technological wonders:

The impression upon the visitor is one of astonishment that grows with every visit. No one who has been upon it can ever forget it. This great structure cannot be confined to the limits of local pride. The glory of it belongs to the race. Not one shall see it and not feel prouder to be a man…It is distinctly an American triumph. American genius designed it. American skill built it, and American workshops made it.

Nye quotes another observer describing the bridge as, “a trophy of triumph over any obstacle of Nature.” And there was the rub. By the 1870s — the era of steel rails, of steam, and of suspension bridges — it seemed that technology could overcome any hurdle that the natural world placed in the path of human progress.

Americans have rarely since retreated from such utopian views. An Edward Abbey or Ted Kaczynski notwithstanding, the technological sublime still typically grips the national imagination. And if we now recognize that the project of conquering nature is both an illusion and self-defeating, we can look back to 1870 to witness one of the moments in our history when that fever dream took deep root. Or we can stroll a leisurely mile across the Brooklyn Bridge, elevated more than one hundred feet above the turbid East River, and gaze upon the skylines of two great boroughs. But beware, the effect is the same now as it was then: a sense of awe mingled with opportunity. Anything seems possible in such a moment. Sublime!

* Wikipedia says it was today, not yesterday, so I’m going with that.