Construction of Sydney Harbour Bridge: Constructing the arch

Construction of Sydney Harbour Bridge: Constructing the arch
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A view of the main bearing and arch ribs shows the two sides of the cantilever arches almost meeting. The bottom chord of one of the bridge panels is erected, weighing 61 tonnes. The panel is lifted by crane and a worker can be seen standing on it. Workmen rivet a chord joint. The panel is lifted. Summary by Poppy De Souza.


Filmed around 1930, just before the arches came together, this clip shows glimpses of the workmen on the massive structure of the bridge. The famous ‘coathanger’ has taken shape and construction is well past the halfway point.


Construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge Synopsis

A comprehensive pictorial record that chronicles the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge between 1925 and 1931, filmed by the Paramount Film Service, Sydney.


Construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge Curator's Notes

This extraordinary survey of the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, easily one of the country’s greatest engineering feats, reveals the sheer scale and enormity of the project. Aside from Commonwealth sponsored productions of the Bridge construction, it is probably the only comprehensive moving image record of the project as a whole. Certainly it is the longest running, at over 100 minutes in length.

Filmed over a six-year period, it covers the preliminary work and excavations of the site, the construction of retaining walls and abutments at the approaching ends of Dawes and Milson’s Points, the slow building and positioning of the steel arches, and the finishing touches such as laying the road and rail tracks.

Many people were employed on the project – not just the workers on the bridge, but steel workers, stonemasons and engineers. Important sections of this film document the associated steelworks, granite quarry and stone dockyards that supplied the building materials to the Bridge itself. The first fifty minutes of footage covers the years 1927-1929 and mostly details the excavations and the building of abutments and support beams. The selected clips come from the last half of the film and cover the later years, 1929-1931, when the major part of the bridge span was under construction and beginning to take its shape. The camera work is executed from various angles and filmed from both fixed and moving positions at different points along the bridge. There are also aerial shots that survey the Bridge in the context of the harbour and surrounding cityscape, and progressive views of the bridge at various points in its construction.

Historical records not only provide an image of the times, but a comparison with the present. For example the workers on the bridge who climb dexterously along its narrow beams high above the waters below, wear almost no safety equipment and seem to defy both gravity and chance as they carry out their work. It is astonishing to think that only a handful of the workers perished during the Bridge’s construction given these conditions. A short section of this film also shows workmen doggedly battling rough seas in an unfriendly harbour!

The bridge was completed in 1931 and was, according to this documentary, ‘one of the greatest British engineering feats dominating the skyline’ in the British Empire. But while it may have been a great achievement for the British engineers and for the British Empire, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was undoubtedly Australia’s own. The National Film and Sound Archive holds a number of film prints of Construction of Sydney Harbour Bridge deposited from various private and public sources. The Paramount Film Service also filmed a newsreel special of the official opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932.

Notes by Poppy De Souza.


Education notes

This clip shows construction of one of the last panels in the arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in mid-1930. It opens with a panning shot of the two cantilevered half-arches, showing how close they are to being joined. Next, a piece of the bottom curve of the arch, the 'bottom chord’, is lifted from a barge and placed in position. A sequence of a riveting team at work follows. The clip closes with a shot of one of the creeper cranes on top of the arch lifting a section of the bottom chord. Four intertitles describe the action shown on screen and supply the technical terms.

Educational value points

  • The Sydney Harbour Bridge took 1,400 men eight years to build and was one of the greatest bridge-building projects undertaken anywhere in the world in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Although not the longest it remains the largest steel arch bridge ever built. The arch consists of 28 panels with a total span of 503 m, weighing 39,000 t. The summit of the arch is 134 m above sea level and it was Sydney’s tallest structure for 35 years.
  • Construction of the Bridge across Sydney Harbour was the culmination of an idea first proposed in 1815 and regularly revived as Sydney grew. The New South Wales Government first began to consider actually building the bridge at the beginning of the 20th century and finally decided to proceed in 1922. The first sod in the project was turned on 28 July 1923, the arch was joined on 19 August 1930 and the completed Bridge opened on 19 March 1932.
  • High levels of engineering design were required for this technically difficult project. By 1922 Dr JJC Bradfield (1867–1943), the chief engineer for metropolitan railway construction and original designer of the Bridge, had decided that a double-hinged steel arch bridge would best suit the location. Footage at the beginning of the clip shows one of the huge hinges designed to cope with the expansions and contractions of the arch caused by temperature changes.
  • Public interest in the Bridge’s construction was relatively subdued at first but as the half-arches anchored by huge wire cables began to rise, the popular imagination was captured by frequent newspaper reports, photographs and films, in which the technical details of erecting the Bridge, particularly its arch, were explained and illustrated in great detail. Although some feared that it might collapse, most members of the public had faith in its science and technology.
  • The Bridge was constructed of huge prefabricated steel components, as the clip illustrates, and used the best bridge-building technology available at the time. The steel pieces were fabricated in workshops on the Harbour’s North Shore, placed on barges, moved into position beneath the Bridge and lifted by one of two 580-t electrically operated creeper cranes, each with a lifting capacity of 122 t, that operated at the edge of the half-arches.
  • About 6 million rivets hold the Bridge together and all stages in the riveting process involved the manual labour of a team of men. As seen in the clip, the process began with the 'cooker’ heating the rivet until it was white-hot, transferring it, often by throwing, to the 'catcher’ who passed it to the 'holder-up’ and the boilermaker, who worked in tandem. One held the rivet head firm with a pneumatic anvil or dolly while the other drove the rivet in with a pneumatic hammer.
  • Examples of unsafe work practices can be seen throughout the clip and were common in the 1930s when occupational health and safety was not a high priority. While workers may have realised that conditions on the Bridge were unsafe, it was the time of the Great Depression and jobs were scarce. Nine men died during construction. Most were riggers or crane workers, such as the man seen here riding a steel piece up from a barge to the arch with no safety harness.
  • The cinematographer used a range of shot types to emphasise the heroic nature of the construction and those who undertook it. The pan at the start of the clip was shot from underneath to show the great extent of the span. The raising of the piece of bottom chord, shot from locations at water level and up on the arch, gives a dramatic sense of the weight and distance involved, while the close-up of the 'holder-up’ at work using the pneumatic dolly reveals his concentration and effort.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Paramount Film Services

This footage is silent, interspersed with intertitles. It shows the joining together of two sides of the arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. A view of the main bearing and arch ribs shows the two sides of the cantilever arches almost meeting.

Intertitle Erection of bottom chord 13th panel. Weight of piece 61 tons.

Intertitle The panel is lifted by crane and a worker can be seen standing on it. A boat passes under.

Intertitle Outer end of bottom chord 13th panel.

Intertitle Riveting a chord joint and holding up by a pneumatic dolly.

intertitle Lifting bottom chord section 13th panel.