Engineering geology

Dr.Karl Von Terzaghi

Dr. Karl von Terzaghi , the father of modern soil mechanics

Dr. Karl von Terzaghi , the father of modern soil mechanics, was born in Prague, Austria, in 1883. At the age of 10, Terzaghi was sent to a military boarding school. He developed an interest in astronomy and geography. He entered the Technical University in Graz to study mechanical engineering in 1900. He graduated with honors in 1904. Terzaghi then fulfilled a compulsory year-long military service. He returned to the university for 1 year after this and combined the study of geology with courses on subjects such as highway and railway engineering.

His first job was as a junior design engineer for a firm in Vienna. The firm was becoming more involved in the relatively new field of hydroelectric power generation, and Karl became involved in the geological problems the firm faced. He embarked on an ambitious and challenging project to construct a hydroelectric dam in Croatia and an even more chaotic project in St. Petersburg, Russia. During 6 months in Russia, he developed some novel graphical methods for the design of industrial tanks, which he submitted as a thesis for his PhD at the university. His growing list of achievements began to open more opportunities to him. He then resolved to go to the United States in 1912. There, he undertook an engineering tour of major dam construction sites on the West Coast. This was no ordinary tour, but rather was his opportunity to gather reports and firsthand knowledge of the problems of many different projects, and he used it to the fullest before returning to Austria in December 1913. When World War I broke out, he found himself drafted into the army. He faced combat in Serbia and witnessed the fall of Belgrade. After a short stint managing an airfield, he became a professor in the Royal Ottoman College of Engineering in Istanbul (now Istanbul Technical University).

He began a very productive period, in which he began his lifelong work of bringing true engineering understanding to the subject of soil as an engineering material. He set up a laboratory for measurements of the force on retaining walls. The results were first published in English in 1919 and were quickly recognized as an important new contribution to the scientific understanding of the fundamental behavior of soils.
At the end of the war, he was forced to resign his post at the university, but managed to find a new post at Robert College in Istanbul. This time he studied various experimental and quantitative aspects of the permeability of soils and was able to work out some theories to explain the observations. In 1925, he published much of this in Erdbaumechanik, which revolutionized the field to great acclaim and resulted in the offer of a position from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which he immediately accepted.

Terzaghi Laboratory
Terzaghi’s soil mechanics laboratory in Wiena Technical University 1935

Terzaghi was determined to return to Europe

One of his first tasks in the United States was to bring his work to the attention of engineers. He entered a new phase of prolific publication, and a rapidly growing and lucrative involvement as an engineering consultant on many large-scale projects.
In 1928, Terzaghi was determined to return to Europe. He accepted a chair at the Vienna Technische Hochshule in the winter of 1929. Using Austria as his base, he traveled ceaselessly throughout Europe, consulting and lecturing, and making new professional contacts and collaborations. Terzaghi then returned to America, where he gave a plenary lecture at the First International Conference on Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering at Harvard University in 1936. He served as the first president of the International Society of Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering
from 1936 to 1957. He made a lecture tour of many other universities but discovered that prospects for employment were dim. He returned to Vienna in November 1936. There, he was caught up in a nasty professional and political controversy.

Terzaghi immigrated to the United States

He escaped from Vienna frequently by extended consulting trips to major construction projects in England, Italy, France, Algeria, and Latvia, adding greatly to his store of practical engineering experience. In 1938, Terzaghi immigrated to the United States and took up a post at Harvard University. Before the end of the war, he consulted on the Chicago subway system and the Newport News shipways construction, among others. He became an American citizen in March 1943. He remained as a part-timer at Harvard University until his mandatory retirement in 1953 at the age of 70. In July of the next year, he became the chairman of the consulting board for the construction of the Aswan High Dam. He resigned this post in 1959 after coming into conflict with the Russian engineers in charge of the project, but continued to consult on various hydroelectric projects, especially in British Columbia. He died in 1963.
In honor of his great contribution in the field, the American Society of Civil
Engineers (ASCE) established the Karl Terzaghi Award in 1960 to be awarded to an “author of outstanding contributions to knowledge in the fields of soil mechanics, subsurface and earthwork engineering, and subsurface and earthwork construction,”and the Terzaghi lectures are delivered and published annually as a highest honor in
the field.


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