GEOSTRATA, 2017, July/August, 6-8

Are We Losing the History of Our Geotechnical Pioneers?

Karl Terzaghi (1883-1963) is widely recognized as the “Father of Soil Mechanics,” or geotechnical engineering as we knowit today. And I’m sure you’re familiar with Terzaghi and hisprofound influence on our profession. But what about the pioneersof geotechnical engineering? I consider the “geotechnical pioneers”to be those prominent engineers who had direct links to Terzaghi aseither an associate and colleague, or a protégé who mentored underTerzaghi in the classroom or in practice. These pioneers carriedon his great work and were instrumental in spreading the fledglingfield of soil mechanics across the U.S. — and indeed the world — inboth academia and practice. There are far too many geotechnicalpioneers to mention individually, but many names of those who areno longer with us come immediately to mind, such as Ralph Peck,Laurits Bjerrum, Alec Skempton, Arthur Casagrande, Harry Seed, andGeorge Sowers, among many others.
During my years of teaching geotechnical engineering to graduate students, I found that most recognized Terzaghi as the father of soil mechanics, but they knew little of his actual history, and even fewer knew any details of the history of the geotechnical pioneers. I’ve found the same to be true of many younger geotechnical engineers in practice today. If this trend continues, we may well lose the history of our geotechnical pioneers.

Why Is This Happening?

Those of my generation often personally knew many of the geotechnical pioneers, and indeed some were our direct mentors in various ways. This opportunity and direct contact enabled us to become incidentally familiar with at least some of their history. Also, because the 1960s through the 1980s saw tremendous growth in the principles of soil mechanics and their application in engineering practice, we were more likely to delve somewhat into the history of an eminent author who had published a new theory or concept. Because few of our pioneers are still with us, students and young engineers no longer have these opportunities today. Curricula in geotechnical engineering programs contain little history of our profession and virtually no historical information about the geotechnical pioneers.

What Can We Do?

When I taught graduate geotechnical engineering courses, I almost always included a component of history about some of our pioneers. Time constraints will always limit the extent of additional material in a course, but the historical component can be woven into the regular content in effective ways. Students always seem to relate well to the history. A few biographies of the geotechnical pioneers are a useful source for brief reading assignments. I encourage our academic colleagues to consider including a small historical component in their curricula for graduate geotechnical engineering courses. Private practice firms can include the available biographies in their libraries and encourage younger engineers to read them. While mentoring younger engineers, we can also include a historical perspective. Typically when I conduct a seminar or short course, I include a section near the beginning with a little history and photos of some of the more relevant pioneers for my topic. We should consider this in all of our longer presentations, such as seminars and short courses. Indeed, a history of our geotechnical pioneers would make a good topic for an entire lecture in appropriate circumstances.
There are a few published biographies of our geotechnical pioneers. They include Karl Terzaghi – The Engineer as Artist, by Richard Goodman; Ralph B. Peck – Educator and Engineer – The Essence of the Man, with editors John Dunnicliff and Nancy Peck Young; and Laurits Bjerrum – More than an Engineer, with editors Kaare Flaate, Elmo DiBiagio, and Kare Senneset. However, there are far too few. I’m currently writing a biography of George Sowers.
I highly encourage anyone who knew, worked with, or otherwise has insight into the history of one of our geotechnical pioneers to consider writing a biography to capture their history for future generations. We can work together in many positive ways to preserve the history of our great geotechnical pioneers. Let’s do it!

Garry H. Gregory, PhD, PE, D.GE, M.ASCE
Geo-Institute President