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Washington A. Roebling

Washington Augustus Roebling, one of the greatest American mineral collectors of all time, was born May 5, 1837, in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania, the son of Jane and John A. Roebling, a Prussian-born manufacturer of steel cable ("wire rope"). The family moved to Trenton, New Jersey in 1849, where they eventually became involved in the construction of suspension bridges utilizing their steel cable. Washington attended Trenton Academy and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, graduating with a degree in Civil Engineering in 1857. He then joined his father's company and assisted in the construction of several suspension bridges including the so-called "Roebling Bridge" connecting the town of Mapimi in Durango, Mexico with the famous Ojuela mine. He served with distinction in the Civil War in 1861-1865, and was present at over a dozen major battles as well as the final surrender of Lee at Appomattox.

Roebling resigned his commission (as a Colonel) in 1865 and married Emily Warren, daughter of General Warren (a Mayflower descendant, with whom he had served at the battle of Little Round Top). Resuming work with his father's company, he went to Europe for year to learn about the construction of pneumatic caissons for use in building bridge foundations underwater. His father had taken on the job of building the famous Brooklyn bridge, but died in a ferry accident during the planning stage, so Washington and his two brothers formed the new company of John A. Roebling Sons and resumed work on the bridge. Washington was permanently disabled in 1872, having remained too long in a caisson and developed "the bends." Despite being an invalid for the rest of his life, he continued to supervise the construction of the great bridge through to completion in 1882. In 1884 he moved to Troy, New York, and in 1888 to Trenton, New Jersey where he remained until his death on July 21, 1926, at the age of 88.

Roebling had first become interested in minerals while a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His collection, which he pursued vigorously throughout his life, eventually numbered over 16,000 well-chosen specimens, including every species obtainable and many extraordinarily fine display specimens. He was well read in mineralogy and carried on a wide-ranging correspondence with many dealers, collectors, scientists, geological surveys and museums in the mineral world. Oddly enough, though, he never cataloged or numbered his specimens (and was in constant fear of getting the labels mixed up). He was generous with his time, his monery and his minerals, welcoming a steady stream of visitors to his home to see his collection. He was also an accomplished musician, linguist and classical scholar. The mineral roeblingite was named in his honor in 1897, by Samuel Penfield and A.E. Foote.

Following Roebling's death his collection was donated to the Smithsonian Institution by his son John, along with a substantial endowment fund ($150,000) for the maintainence and further growth of the collection. The specimens were packing in 350 shipping boxes and transported to Washington. Smithsonian catalog numbers for the Roebling mineral specimens are prefixed with an "R." Specimens numbered R1 through R6000 were owned by Roebling, whereas higher numbered specimens were purchased later by the Smithsonian with money from the Roebling endowment. (Many catalog numbers cover more than one specimen, and many others in the total count of 16,000 were gemstones and meteorites that were not cataloged with the 6,000 mineral entries.) Since 1929 the endowment has funded the purchase of over 13,000 additional specimens now considered to be part of the "Roebling collection."

ROE, A. (1990) Washington A. Roebling, his life and his mineral collection. Mineralogical Record, >21, 13-30.
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[Citation format for this entry:
WILSON, Wendell E. (2019)
Mineralogical Record
Biographical Archive, at]
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The Mineralogical Record - Washington A. Roebling Washington A. Roebling
The Mineralogical Record - Washington A. Roebling 48 x 69 mm
The Mineralogical Record - Washington A. Roebling 52 x 81 mm
The Mineralogical Record - Washington A. Roebling 32 x 71 mm
The Mineralogical Record - Washington A. Roebling 30 x 74 mm
The Mineralogical Record - Washington A. Roebling 64 x 81 mm
The Mineralogical Record - Washington A. Roebling 37 x 62 mm,
Dated Dec. 16, 1923
The Mineralogical Record - Washington A. Roebling 38 x 73 mm,
Dated 1924
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