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Portrait of the artist as a whole man The first biography of Karl Terzaghi, the father of soil mechanics, reveals a man with a keen passion for art, literature, music and especially nature. Review by


Dick Goodman's subtitle to his biography of Karl Terzaghi refers to the art of engineering, but what resonates more strongly through its broad canvas is the art of living.

Born in Prague in 1883 to a military heritage, Terzaghi soon abandoned that tradition and after considering mechanical engineering opted for civil engineering. He did not seek the comfortable option of a solid career based on local success.

Terzaghi's robust approach to challenging opportunities is evident when he left his first engineering post and the comfort of Vienna in 1909 for a hydro-electric project in Croatia. He carried a geology hammer and a Browning pistol - 'the highest authority in a Serbo-Croatian dispute'.

Goodman shows how an early mixture of success and failure in Europe fired Terzaghi's broad vision and in 1912 he set his sights on North America. On this first trip Terzaghi travelled widely. Adept at making and cultivating influential contacts, his introduction to the US Geological Survey soon created opportunities and Terzaghi felt that there could be no better place on the planet to gain practical experience in engineering geology.

Goodman emphasises the extreme highs and lows that characterised this trip. They were intellectual, physical and emotional. Olga Byloff makes a dramatic entrance, desperately following Terzaghi to America carrying his child. Their relationship echoed the turbulence of the times and the eventual marriage lasted only six years.

Terzaghi was a multi-dimensional man with a keen passion for art, literature and music but especially nature. And as Goodman notes: 'These were best enjoyed in the company of women.' There are various colourful references to this predilection, particularly during Terzaghi's earlier and wilder years. Fortunately for Terzaghi he met his soulmate in Ruth Doggett, and they married in 1930.

Foundation engineering became his focus with an early realisation of the importance of geology and the need to integrate theory with practice, which became the core theme of his life and work. 'Theory is the language by means of which lessons of experience can be clearly expressed. When there is no theory, as in earth construction, there is no collected wisdom, merely incomprehensible fragments.'

Terzaghi avidly sought comprehension. His enthusiasm for fieldwork was complemented by his energy in the laboratory. For example, the investigation into soil properties during 1917-1919 at the Royal Ottoman College of Engineering in Constantinople (Istanbul) is described as exhaustive and exhausting. He worked with such intensity that at times his nightstand was crowded with specimens to be read at six-hourly intervals.

Terzaghi's pioneering work involved making his own equipment fashioned from kitchen equipment, cigar boxes and bazaar artefacts. His reflections a decade or so on later on his MIT experiments in the 1930s prompted the observation that 'research results depend not on the perfection of the equipment but on the truth of the proposition'. The far more sensitive and sophisticated MIT apparatus essentially confirmed his early results in Turkey.

Along with an enthusiasm for sketching Terzaghi kept a detailed and regular diary. Perhaps his sense of history gave him an eye for posterity, and it is these records which Goodman has so richly mined. For Terzaghi his diary was therapeutic, providing a sense of proportion balancing life's setbacks with the joy of discovery. Although very much his own man, it is also interesting to note how much Terzaghi drew from his two mentors, professors Forcheimer and Wittenbauer.

With the Fifteen Mile Falls dam project in 1927, Goodman provides an insight to Terzaghi's grand and visionary approach to problem solving. This project involved a long retaining wall up to 55m (180ft) high with dauntingly difficult ground conditions. Terzaghi proposed large scale soil loading tests leading to the construction of the famous earth-pressure test bin at MIT. It required 75 supporting piles and ran nearly three times over budget. Terzaghi saw it as an opportunity to confirm his 1917 earth pressure work and it led to the design of a daringly narrow wall, delivering major cost savings.

While Goodman's text underlines the vision and energy of this supreme innovator, courage in the face of often extreme adversity also features strongly. The Reichsbridge saga in the early 1930s, where Terzaghi's reputation was unjustly threatened, foreshadowed the tragic Fillunger affair.

The mid 1930s was a period characterised by a punishing workload which brought out Terzaghi's harsher side, converting him into an 'incipient tyrant'. Leo Rendulic, in particular, suffered some heavy criticism. However, Terzaghi and Otto Frohlich became far more serious targets themselves when Professor Paul Fillunger produced a slanderous pamphlet Erdbaumechanik?, attacking their reputations and potentially smearing the name of soil mechanics.

Goodman describes this as 'Soil Mechanics on Trial'. It was a new nadir for Terzaghi that his reputation barely survived. Fillunger became the victim of his own campaign, committing suicide with his wife.

This episode hardly endeared Viennese academia to Terzaghi and he turned his attention to consulting. He travelled around Europe and Algeria with a focus on dams. Chingford dam brought him to England and his first meeting with a young Alec Skempton. Goodman wryly observes that Chingford advanced British soil mechanics by 20 years. He also quotes Terzaghi's initial acerbic humour on this project although his more uncompromising views were separately expressed to Arthur Casagrande.

There is a disarming account of the meeting with Hitler in 1936 when Terzaghi was advising on the immense Reichsparteitag project in his own inimitable way. To disagree with the Fuhrer would seem a high risk strategy but Terzaghi was victorious 'through the uncanny perfection' of his logic.

This period was concluded by the Anschluss and the dark threat of the concentration camp. Goodman entitles the next chapter 'Development of the Observational Method' and indeed a bright new chapter in Terzaghi's life followed from his desperate and perilous flight from Europe. His established connections in the USA now helped him land very much on his feet. Arthur Casagrande played a key role in securing quiet refuge in Harvard but also introduced Terzaghi to a young engineer called Ralph Peck.

The subway tunnels in the soft clay of Chicago presented a new and irresistible challenge. Terzaghi approached this with a typical mixture of vision and audacity that even amazed (and dismayed) Casagrande. But Terzaghi was successful in his seemingly extravagant demands, inspiring newspaper headlines such as 'Soil Expert Hits Pay Dirt'. This was a real coup in the economic depression. Peck was appointed as Terzaghi's man on the job, starting one of the most famous alliances in civil engineering.

In between visits to Chicago, Terzaghi was consulted on the alarming settlement of the Charity Hospital in New Orleans. The local engineers could not agree and Terzaghi brought typical clarity and judgement. Goodman quotes Terzaghi's perceptive views on the limits of practical experience, sounding again the leitmotiv of integrating theory with practice. Terzaghi's James Forrest lecture at the ICE in 1939 used the fresh Charity Hospital case history. Beyond his eloquent simplicity the audience were galvanised by his comment on the legal status of soil mechanics.

Work on the Chicago Subway stopped with American entry into the Second World War although Terzaghi and Peck's relationship continued and flourished. But this was to sustain a supreme test in the writing of the manuscript for their famous book. It was a cathartic process for Terzaghi, which placed extreme demands on Peck in the task of editing. By the time Soil Mechanics in Engineering Practice was finally published in 1948, it had created a deep and profound bond between the authors.

Arthur Casagrande does not fare well in the main body of Goodman's account. This seems unfair, particularly considering his outstanding achievements. Clearly, while Terzaghi was direct and straightforward, Casagrande presented a very complex character. Goodman does include a strong corrective to the negative impression but this is only in a note to the last chapter.

Terzaghi became an America citizen on March 1, 1943 and Goodman chronicles the dizzying pace of his consulting work, first in North America and Mexico and then on an international scale. Although the range of his foundation engineering projects was wide, Terzaghi's career had sprung from hydropower and dams held a particular attraction.

He had a special love for British Columbia and in its rugged scenery he found some of the most challenging and satisfying projects in the conclusion of his career. His career and life were synonymous and ended together in 1963 with the Mission Dam, which Terzaghi considered the most difficult problem of his lifetime.

Throughout the text unfolds with the exhilaration of engineering as high adventure. The 19 chapters have the sweep of a novel but the copious annotation and notes tempt the reader to the references, particularly those of Terzaghi. Even if Goodman's book achieves no more than to stimulate a new generation of engineers to a deeper study of Terzaghi's publications it will be of sterling service.

It is amply illustrated with photographs and many of Terzaghi's fascinating sketches, both picturesque and technical. The eye for telling detail is obvious and the creation of such drawings is a signal route to observation and understanding.

Goodman liberally enriches the text with many Terzaghi quotes, ranging from pointed wit to the simplicity of deeply perceptive wisdom. It deserves to be a bestseller and it would be a great pity if cost or availability placed constraints on access to it, particularly for young engineers.

Goodman records in fascinating detail the rich legacy and debt that we owe Terzaghi. The book, which Ralph Peck applauds in his foreword as 'capturing the essence of the man', provides keen insights into Terzaghi's overall approach and way of working. Laurits Bjerrum succinctly summarised this in his 1960 article and it reveals a natural synergy with the observational method. We must thank Terzaghi for keeping such comprehensive records and Goodman for his painstaking five years to produce so telling a picture of the engineer as artist.

Karl Terzaghi: The Engineer as Artist, by Richard E Goodman. ASCE Press 1999, 340pp, paperback.

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