Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Inventions: Panama Canal Emergency Dams

Inventor: Otis Ellis Hovey

Otis Ellis Hovey Otis Ellis Hovey, Dartmouth 1885, Thayer 1887, had two words of advice about what it takes to be an engineer: “Hard work.” To which he added, “You want more than this? Well, I would add ‘common sense.’ So many engineers fail because they do not have the last quality.”

Hovey was, by all accounts, a hard worker, and he had a lot more common sense than his Dartmouth classmate and cousin Richard Hovey, author of the drinking song “Eleazar Wheelock.” As the assistant chief engineer of American Bridge Company Otis Hovey worked on some of the biggest projects of his era, including designing the superstructure of the Belle­fontaine Bridge across the Mississippi and designing and building six emergency dams for the Panama Canal.

Hovey was also the authority on moveable bridges. He wrote the subject bible — Moveable Bridges, published in 1926 — and held patents on three moveable bridge designs which he dubbed Types O, E, and H (which just happen to be his initials.)

Hovey's retractable emergency locks for the Panama Canal swung into place like a moveable bridge.
Hovey's retractable emergency locks for the Panama Canal swung into place like a moveable bridge.

Hovey’s success didn’t come from common sense alone. The man had imagination. In 1895, at the age of 30, he designed a 3,200-foot bridge across the Hudson River — twice as long as the Brooklyn Bridge (then the world’s longest). Visiting Turkey, he designed a pontoon bridge across Constantinople’s Golden Horn. Though neither bridge was built, his plans displayed his signature blend of diligence, intelligence, and originality.

In his later years Hovey was regularly mistaken for look-alike Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Hovey served on the Thayer Board of Overseers from 1907 until his death in 1941.

—Lee Michaelides

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Categories: Inventions

Tags: design, history, innovation, patent, projects

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