Skip to main content
No. 2979:
J.J.C Bradfield

by Andrew Boyd

Today, facing the future. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

After a voyage of over eight months, the pioneering fleet of wooden ships arrived at their destination in January of 1788. But what the convicts and their keepers found wasn't the favorable land they'd been told of. Instead, they were met with low, marshy ground and a poorly protected harbor. So a week after setting ashore they packed up and moved ten miles north. The new harbor was far more inviting, as was the beautiful, hilly land that surrounded it.

On January 26, the British flag was planted in Sydney, thus establishing the first British penal colony in Australia. It's a date celebrated by Australians as the birth of their country, much like the Fourth of July in the U.S. No eloquent declarations of independence to be found in the land down under; instead, the country celebrates the spirit of the hardy souls whose forced labor gave rise to a nation. Australian independence from the U.K. occurred rather quietly in 1986, the result of some agreed upon signatures.

Today, Sydney Harbor is graced by the most iconic figure in Australia: the Sydney Opera House. Situated on a point that extends prominently into the surrounding waters, with an enormous roofline inspired by the billowing sails of wind-powered ships, the Opera House seizes an onlooker's attention. But it shares the stage with a less lauded though equally impressive structure: the Sydney Harbor Bridge.

Sydney Harbor
Sydney Harbor Bridge Panoramic. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

When the bridge was completed in 1932, it connected Sydney with lands on the north a half mile away. It's a beautiful design; a single massive steel arch that stretches from one shore to the other, rising high above the roadway at midpoint. If you're brave enough, and have a couple of hundred dollars to spare, you can take a four hour guided trek to the top and back.

AAA Bridge
People Climbing Sydney Harbor Bridge. Photo by E. A. Boyd

The true legacy of the bridge, however, was the statement it made when it was built: Sydney is one of the world's great cities. The bridge was the brainchild of engineer J.J.C. Bradfield. Bradfield dreamed big, and the bridge was only part of his master plan. He foresaw an extensive system of public rail lines stretching to unthinkably distant regions. Bradfield's vision was never fully realized, but it proved an inspiration to city planners for generations. The entire area now boasts an extensive, modern, commuter rail system.

John Bradfield
John Bradfield. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

And as Sydney looks to the future, it's once again summoning the ghost of engineer J.J.C. Bradfield. When a noted politician hinted Sydney might be done growing, proclaiming 'Sydney is full,' it raised a kerfuffle heard from the Bradfield electorate to the Bradfield Highway. Sydney isn't full. Its leaders are drawing inspiration from the past to face the future. And that seems only fitting for descendants of those hardy souls who rose to much bigger challenges with great success.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Australia Day. From the Wikipedia website: Accessed November 18, 2014.

P. Fletcher. Vision That Crossed the World: Bradfield Built the Bridge and Pointed the Way Forward to Today's Sydney. The Sydney Daily Telegraph: November 1, 2014, pp. 40-41. 

The picture of people on the bridge is by E. A. Boyd. All other pictures are from Wikimedia Commons.

This episode first aired on November 20, 2014.