Tag Archives: Karl Terzaghi

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.)

Happy Karl Terzaghi’s Birthday 2012 (Updated)

Ah, October….here in the U.S. the leaves are beginning to turn as fall begins (or, in some places, fall off due to summer heat and lack of rain).  The beginning of fall marks a lot of things, such as the Major League Baseball playoffs (insert favorite team name here!), but more importantly the anniversary of the birthday of Karl Terzaghi!

I know that the past few years I have written an extended post highlighting something from Professor Terzaghi’s life or contributions to soil mechanics.  Alas, this fall I let the date creep up on me and my schedule this week left me little time to spend on a more detailed post.  I hope to resume that tradition next year.

Nonetheless, after a busy day of conference calls, design reviews, and calculations of pile resistance (or capacity for all of the folks still living in the ASD world), there will be time for a toast today, or maybe even a slice of birthday cake, in honor of our hero, Karl Terzaghi!



Randy Post at Geoprac.net has set up 12 Terzghi Tweets for today.


My friend (and former professor) Dr. Dave Elton, P.E., currently on sabbatical from Auburn University (War Eagle!), sent this ode today:

A timely ode to our Profession.

The beauty of soil’s

What we consider today,

In which cause we toil,

Be it silt, be it clay.

Foundations are mighty!

The piles we drive!

Geosynthetics are awesome!

We feel so alive!

Tho’ our pride sometimes suffers:

The hillside displaces.

And foundations still settle,

Leaving dirt on our faces.

Still our cause it is just!

From gravel to marl,

Our technology awesome!

Started by Karl!

So onward we press,

With our powers, expert.

As to-day we honor,

The Father of Dirt.

Happy Terzaghi’s Birthday.

Karl Terzaghi (1883 – 1963)

(Celebrate: Go trigger a landslide. You have my permission.)


D. Elton, P.E.

Auburn University October 02, 2012

Not copyrighted. Forward at will.

Happy Karl Terzaghi’s Birthday 2011!

Greetings to all Terzaghi fans!  Yes, it is that time of year again, where our thoughts turn to the anniversary of the birth of one of the greats in our field.

Last year I had a football themed post (college football, in case you were wondering…and that is American football for our fans outside the U.S.) since Terzaghi’s birthday was on a Saturday. Since I am not a big pro football fan, and since I used football last year, I figured I would do something different for this year’s weekend post.

The August 2011 edition of the International Society for Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering ISSMGE Bulletin is headlined with an article on the history of ISSMGE: “THE ISSMGE FROM 1936 TO 2011 A RETROSPECTIVE ON THE OCCASION OF THE 75TH PLATINUM JUBILEE ANNIVERSARY” by Kenji Ishihara and Michele Jamiolkowski. The Bulletin is in two parts at this link. The article is an outstanding work providing an excellent account of the start of ISSMGE as an international conference and its evolution into the ISSMGE we know today.

It should be no surprise that Prof. Terzaghi was very active and one of the key figures in the formation and success of ISSMGE, which began as the International Conference on Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering (ICSMFE). Many of the giants of soil mechanics and geotechnical engineering on which we base al of our work were instrumental in the start of ICSMFE and its impacts on our profession. As for that time in history (1936) and how it was important to our field:

The time had come to hold a Conference aimed at exchanging and sharing information on Earth and Foundation Engineering.

It was Professor Arthur Casagrande (assistant professor of Harvard University) who sensed the timing, conceived the idea and carried out the herculean task of running the conference all the way through, in his role of Secretary General, with K. Terzaghi (Professor of Technical University of Vienna and visiting Professor of Harvard University) as Chairman. Professor Peck once remarked “Our Society owes an enormous debt to Arthur Casagrande for his conviction that the time was right for the International Conference and to his tremendous efforts to organize it“.

Since the first ICMSFE was so successful, it became clear that the Conference should not remain a one-off event but should, instead, be continued within a few years, possibly being held in Holland where earthwork engineering is so crucial to the country.

It was also requested to set up a permanent international organization. Thus it was decided to establish International Committees consisting of National Committees with K. Terzaghi as President and A. Casagrande as Secretary. It was also decided that at the next Conference the International Committees would submit the draft of the Constitution and of the By-laws, which are essential for the Society to become a permanent organization.

There was at that time a widespread awareness that it was the moment to set up a common denominator institution that would group engineers with diverse backgrounds but involved in our discipline.

Portion of group photo from 1st ICSMFE, 1936.  (From ISSMGE Bulletin Vol 5, No 4, August 2011, p3)


Photo of Terzaghi addressing the opening session of the 4th ICSMFE, 1957.  (From ISSMGE Bulletin Vol 5, No 4, August 2011, p7)


And the rest, as the saying goes, is history!

As an editorial note on the first year, Ishihara and Jamiolkowski offer this observation:

It is commonly recognized that K. Terzaghi is the originator of modern soil mechanics and foundation engineering and therefore father of our profession. After tracing the history of development, the writers had a strong belief that this is true. Not only was he always a leading figure in the forefront, but he conveyed strong messages on the role and importance of the soil mechanics and foundation engineering every time he participated in the ICSMFE. We are very much impressed by his enthusiastic and heartfelt message to our community.

No less important was the role played by Arthur Casagrande. He was instrumental in persuading the President of Harvard University to host the conference and carrying out all arrangements for organizing the first International Conference on Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering. The great success of this conference contributed greatly for establishing the place of soil mechanics in engineering practice throughout the world. He also dedicated himself to the ISSMFE as the 3rd President between the periods of 1961 in Montreal to 1965 in Paris.

There is a saying that for a great religion to be established, there always are two key-role playing giants. For Christianity Jesus Christ is the originator and his disciple Saint Paul was the great evangelist. For Greek philosophy, Socrates was the great philosopher and it was Plato who was the greatest disciple. Terzaghi and Casagrande are considered as a combination in the same context. Without Terzaghi, Casagrande would not have been so well-known. Had there not been Casagrande, the fame of Terzaghi would have developed in a different format.

Now neither I nor the authors are suggesting that soil mechanics is a religion, but their point on the timing and combination of Terzaghi’s and Casagrande’s work was critical to what we see as the field of soil mechanics/geotechnical engineering today. Without these two and others seeing a need, taking charge, and filling that need, we could very well be viewing things from a completely different framework.

So as we reflect on this celebrated day, let’s remember not only Prof. Terzaghi’s great technical achievements, but also his role as a leader (along with many others) shaping our field of practice and our professional societies.

Happy Karl Terzaghi Birthday 2010


October 2nd, is the day we (or at least a lot of us geoprofessionals) have all been looking forward to all year – the birthday of Professor Karl Terzaghi, The Father of Modern Day Soil Mechanics, born October 2, 1883.

Since this historic day in geotechnical engineering history falls on a Saturday this year, I offer a cheer for those of us into college football (I mean, really, who isn’t this time of year, at least in the U.S.):

Two bits, four bits, six bits..a dollar

All for Terzaghi, stand up and holler!!!!!

On the more reflective side, each year I try to find some interesting fact or quote to write about. This year, I decided to read the preface of Soil Mechanics in Engineering Practice (Terzaghi and Peck, 1948) for inspiration, and thus will quote from there:

“Unfortunately, the research activities in soil mechanics had one undesirable psychological effect. They diverted the attention of many investigators and teachers from the manifold limitations imposed by nature on the application of mathematics to problems in earthwork engineering. As a consequence, more and more emphasis has been placed on refinements in sampling and testing and on those very few problems that can be solved with accuracy. Yet, accurate solutions can be obtained only if the soil strata are practically homogeneous and continuous in horizontal directions. Furthermore, since the investigations leading to an accurate solution involve highly specialized methods of sampling and testing, they are justified only in exceptional cases. On the overwhelming majority of jobs no more than an approximate forecast is needed, and if such a forecast cannot be made by simple means it cannot be made at all.”

While our technology has allowed us to measure, analyze, test, and compute huge volumes of data, as well as investigate the highly complex nature of soil-structure systems, we sometimes get caught up in the details of precision. We try to be much more precise than the materials we work with truly allow. This is not to say we should totally throw away our technology, forsaking numerical models, design software, or sophisticated in-situ testing and return to the days of slide rules (though I can use one!). There are many times, however, that an “approximate forecast” is just as “accurate” as a calculation computed to a precise number.

So, my friends, raise your glasses this weekend to toast Professor Terzaghi and our profession!


Update (10/1/10): One of my (Robert’s) mentors at my first job out of grad school, Luther Boudra, P.E. at MACTEC, wrote me this morning on the subject of accuracy and precision.  I asked him if I could share his comment (and he agreed) since I thought it was very insightful:

Robert, Professors Terzaghi’s comments remind me of something I read recently in a book about precision shooting, particularly at long range.  The author, who incidentally is both an engineer and top level shooter, was noting the difference between “precision” and “accuracy”.  Precision is exemplified by being able to repeat something to close tolerance, as exemplified in the shooting community by benchrest shooters, who are primarily interested in shooting small groups of typically 5 to 10 shots.  Hitting near the center of the target, whatever it is, is of secondary importance.  Accuracy, on the other hand, requires the ability to hit what you are aiming at, precisely.  In other words to take this to our field of endeavor, it’s possible to be “precisely inaccurate”, which the various software packages available to calculate almost anything enhance the possibility of.

Speaking of slide rules, their greatest attribute is that you have to be able to estimate the answer, rather than just writing down what shows up on the display screen.

Happy Karl Terzaghi’s Birthday!

Karl von Terzaghi (October 2, 1883 – October 25, 1963)


Photograph From the World Wide Web of Geotechnical Engineering Hall of Fame (http://www.ejge.com/People/Terzaghi/Terzaghi.htm)

Yes, my geotechnical friends, another year has passed and it is again that special date in geotechnical engineering history: Karl Terzaghi’s Birthday!

Each year we pause to recognize the birth of the Father of Modern Soil Mechanics. For those of you that this is the first year you have received this message, let me welcome you to my annual tribute to Professor Terzaghi and the geotechnical engineering profession. (If you do not want this annual greeting, please let me know and I will drop you from my list!).

For this year’s reflection, I thought I would share a story from Professor Terzaghi’s biography: “Karl Terzaghi – The Engineer as Artist” by Richard E. Goodman (quotes in italics). Terzaghi was in the U.S. in the fall of 1938 working on securing an appointment at Harvard. He received a lot of invitations to speak once word spread he was in the U.S. He organized them into something like a tour. “But he did not defer the invitation from Dean Grinter, of the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago, because Karl knew that construction of new subway tunnels through soft clay was about to start under the heart of Chicago. At Armour Institute, he wisely chose to speak about the dangers of tunneling in soft clay beneath cities.” The lecture was on December 1, 1938. Representatives of the property owners along the subway right-of-way as well as the chief engineer of the subway department were in attendance. Both parties sought out Terzaghi as consultant and made offers. He eventually chose the offer to work for the city after requiring several conditions that including hiring Professor Ralph Peck, “beginning a job that propelled the young field of soils engineering.” The rest, as they say, is history. This story illustrates how the right words (a lecture, a presentation, etc.) at the right time in front of the right audience can pay huge dividends, both professionally and financially.

Remember that every day is a great day to be in the field of geotechnical engineering and construction! Have a great Karl Terzaghi’s Birthday!