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Secrets of Lost Empires


Cable-stayed bridge Cable-stayed bridge
Clark Bridge, Alton, IL

Cable-Stayed Bridge

Cable-stayed bridges may look similar to suspension bridges—both have roadways that hang from cables and both have towers. But the two bridges support the load of the roadway in very different ways. The difference lies in how the cables are connected to the towers. In suspension bridges, the cables ride freely across the towers, transmitting the load to the anchorages at either end. In cable-stayed bridges, the cables are attached to the towers, which alone bear the load.

The cables can be attached to the roadway in a variety of ways. In a radial pattern, cables extend from several points on the road to a single point at the top of the tower. In a parallel pattern, cables are attached at different heights along the tower, running parallel to one other.

Parallel attachment pattern Parallel attachment pattern

Radial attachment pattern Radial attachment pattern


Try It!
How do cable-stayeds work?

Stand up and hold your arms out horizontally at each side. Imagine that your arms are a bridge, and your head is a tower in the middle. In this position, your muscles are holding up your arms.

Try making cable-stayeds to support your arms. Take a piece of rope (about five feet long), and have a partner tie each end of the rope to each of your elbows. Then lay the middle of the rope on top of your head. The rope acts as a cable-stayed and holds your elbows up.

Illustration of person with rope supporting arms Have your partner tie a second piece of rope (about 6 feet long) to each wrist. Lay the second rope over your head. You now have two cable-stayeds. Where do you feel a pushing force, or compression? Notice how the cable-stayeds transfer the load of the bridge (your arms) to the tower (your head).

Even though cable-stayed bridges look futuristic, the idea for them goes back a long way. The first known sketch of a cable-stayed bridge appears in a book called Machinae Novae published in 1595, but it wasn't until this century that engineers began to use them. In post-World War II Europe, where steel was scarce, the design was perfect for rebuilding bombed out bridges that still had standing foundations. Cable-stayed bridges began to be erected in the United States only recently, but the response has been passionate.

For medium-length spans (those between 500 and 2,800 feet), cable-stayeds are fast becoming the bridge of choice. Compared to suspension bridges, cable-stayeds require less cable, can be constructed out of identical pre-cast concrete sections, and are faster to build. The result is a cost-effective bridge that is undeniably beautiful.


Sunshine Skyway bridge Sunshine Skyway bridge
In 1988, the Sunshine Skyway bridge in Tampa, Florida won the prestigious Presidential Design Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Painted yellow to contrast with its marine surroundings, the Sunshine Skyway is one of the first cable-stayed bridges to attach cables to the center of its roadway as opposed to the outer edges, allowing commuters an unobstructed view of the magnificent bay. Recently, in Boston, Massachusetts, a cable-stayed design was selected for a new bridge across the Charles River—even though cheaper options were proposed. City officials simply liked the way it looked.

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Photo: ASCE

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