Happy Karl Terzaghi’s Birthday 2013!


Happy Karl Terzaghi’s Birthday, my friends!  Yes, it is time to raise our coffee, espresso, tea, wine, beer or other beverage to toast the Father of Modern Soil Mechanics as has been our custom here at the DBA blog.

As I pondered what to write this year, I perused a couple of books and ended up looking through my copy of Richard Goodman’s  “Karl Terzaghi – The Engineer as Artist”.  Among the many stories and accounts, I found this passage recounting an incident in the late 1950s (Ch. 17, pp245):

At this critical time, the world was reminded of the terrible consequences of dam failure when Board member Andre Coyne’s Malpassat Dam failed in France, causing more than 400 deaths (in Frejus, very near Ruth’s 1939 refuge on the French Riviera).  It failed on the initial filling of the reservoir due to geological weakness in one of the rock abutments of the very thin concrete arch.Later Karl would express sever criticism of the decision to bold such a structure on a geologically inadequate site.  But now he comforted his distraught colleague, writing that “failures of this kind are, unfortunately, essential and inevitable links in the chain of progress in the realm of engineering, because there are no other means for detecting the limits to the validity of our concepts and procedures…. The torments which you experienced should at least be tempered by the knowledge that the sympathies of your colleagues in the engineering profession will be coupled with their gratitude for the benefits which they have derived from your bold pioneering.”

Throughout the book, Goodman does an excellent job of showing the different facets of Terzaghi, and this is no exception.  He had a reputation of being a tough, direct, and straight-forward engineer that did not pull punches.  Here we see a somewhat softer side as he comforts a colleague, who was an expert in his own right.

If you have not read Goodman’s book, I highly recommend it for all Terzaghi fans!  It is published by ASCE and can be found through the ASCE Bookstore, or at other book retailers.  (Disclosure:  Neither DBA or any of its employees receive any commissions, compensation, or other considerations for promoting this book.)