Karl von Terzaghi

Karl von Terzaghi (October 2, 1883 – October 25, 1963) was an Austrian Mechanical Engineer, geotechnical engineer and geologist known as the "father of soil mechanics".[1]

Karl von Terzaghi
KT 1926
Karl Terzaghi (1926)
BornOctober 2, 1883
DiedOctober 25, 1963 (aged 80)
Spouse(s)Ruth Dogget Terzaghi
AwardsFrank P. Brown Medal (1946)
Scientific career
FieldsCivil engineering, Geotechnical engineering
Notable studentsCinna Lomnitz

Early life

In 1883, he was born the first child of Army Lieutenant-Colonel Anton von Terzaghi, of Italian origin, and Amalia Eberle in Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic. Upon his father's retirement from the army, the family moved to Graz, Austria.

At 10, Terzaghi was sent to a military boarding school, where he developed an interest in astronomy and geography. At age fourteen, Terzaghi entered a different military school, in Hranice, the Crown of Bohemia. He was an excellent student, especially in geometry and mathematics, and graduated with honors at 17.[2]

In 1900, Terzaghi entered the Technical University in Graz to study mechanical engineering, where he also developed an interest in theoretical mechanics. He was nearly expelled at one point but ended up graduating with honors in 1904.[3] Terzaghi then fulfilled his compulsory one-year military service. While fulfilling his military obligations, Terzaghi translated and greatly expanded a popular English geology field manual to German. He returned to the university for one year and combined the study of geology with courses on subjects such as highway and railway engineering. Shortly afterward, he published his first academic paper on the geology of terraces in southern Styria.[3]

Early professional years

His first job was as a junior design engineer for the firm Adolph von Pittel, 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. His responsibilities quickly increased, and by 1908, he was already managing a construction site, workers, and the design and construction of steel-reinforced structures. He embarked on an ambitious and challenging project to construct a hydroelectric dam in Croatia. He went on with great success to an even more chaotic project in St. Petersburg. For six 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 opportunity to him. He resolved to go to the United States, which he did in 1912.

In the United States, on his own, he undertook an engineering tour of major dam construction sites in the West. It was no ordinary tour but 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 as an officer directing a 250-man engineering battalion. His responsibilities further increased, to leading 1,000 men, and he faced combat in Serbia and witnessed the fall of Belgrade.[4] After a short stint managing an airfield, he became a professor at the Royal Ottoman College of Engineering in Istanbul (now Istanbul Technical University).

There, he began a productive and contented period during which he began his lifelong work of bringing true engineering understanding to soil as an engineering material whose properties could be measured in standardized ways. He set up a laboratory, using only the most rudimentary of equipment, and began his revolution. Both his measurements and his analysis of the force on retaining walls were first published in English in 1919, and they were quickly recognized as an important new contribution to the scientific understanding of the fundamental behavior of soils.[5]

After the war, he was forced to resign his post at the University but managed to find a new post at Robert College in Istanbul, where he switched his teaching language from French to English and again constructed a laboratory out of the most simple equipment. Now, he studied various experimental and quantitative aspects of the permeability of soils to water and was able to work out some theories to explain the observations. He invented entirely new apparatus for the measurements and put in many long days of work to carry out the measurements himself. In 1924 he published much of it in his Magnum Opus, Erdbaumechanik (Soil Mechanics), which revolutionized the field to great acclaim.[6] That resulted in a job offer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which he immediately accepted.

Later years

One of his first tasks in the United States was to bring his work to the attention of engineers. Then, he proceeded to do by writing a series of articles for the Engineering News Record, which were published in winter 1925, then as a small book in 1926. He found the facilities at MIT abominable and had to deal with obstruction from the administration. Brushing the obstacles aside, he once more set up a new laboratory geared towards making measurements on soils with instruments of his own devising. 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 1927, Aurelia Schober Plath, who would become the mother of the poet Sylvia Plath, worked as a secretary for Terzaghi. She was of Austrian descent and worked for him by translating a handwritten manuscript in German, dealing with new principles of soil mechanics. After work, they would have dinner together when Terzaghi's conversation led her to Greek drama, Russian literature, the works of Hermann Hesse, the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke as well as the writings of great world philosophers. She claims the experience affected her for the rest of her life and that she "realized how narrow my world had been and that self-education could be and should be an exciting lifelong adventure. It was the beginning of my dream for the ideal education of the children I hoped some day to have."[7]

From 1926 to 1932, Arthur Casagrande, another pioneer of soil mechanics and geotechnical engineering, worked as Terzaghi's private assistant at MIT.

Terzaghi was much in demand as a dinner companion and was a fascinating conversationalist. His striking good looks and evident power was very attractive to women. In 1928, he met the young Harvard doctoral student in geology, Ruth Dogget, and fell deeply in love.

That year, Terzaghi was finally fed up with MIT and its president and determined to return to Europe. He accepted a chair at the Vienna Technische Hochshule in the winter of 1929. He married Ruth, who became his editor and collaborator as well. A short consulting trip to the Soviet Union before taking up his post horrified him, and he came to oppose the communist system there, as a regime exemplified by its brutality and chaos.[8] Using Austria as his base, he traveled ceaselessly throughout Europe, consulting, lecturing and making new professional contacts and collaborations. His teaching workload was now relatively light so he continued his experimental investigations and became especially interested in the problems of the settling of foundations, and of grouting. He began writing the manuscript for a much updated and expanded version of Erdbaumechanik, now set for two volumes. However, the political turmoil in Austria began to interfere with his work, and in 1935, he decided to take a leave from Vienna from 1935 to 1936.

He began his sabbatical with a short trip to consult with Todt and the architects of the proposed grandiose plans for immense buildings at the Nazi's Party Day Rally site in Nuremberg. That led to a conflict over the best way to lay a sound foundation, which led to a discussion with Hitler himself, who took an intense interest in all details of the architecture.[9] Terzaghi then returned to America, where he gave a plenary lecture at the International Conference on Soil Mechanics at Harvard University (the event led to the establishment of the International Society for Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering; Terzaghi was its first president).[10] He made a lecture tour of many other universities but discovered that prospects for employment were dim. He returned to Vienna in September 1936, shortly after the birth of his first son Eric.

In Vienna, he returned to a nasty professional and political controversy (including an acrimonious dispute with Paul Fillunger), which he overcame only with some difficulty.[11][12] He memorably stated, "The Fatherland denoted me as a Nazi, the Nazis as a Bolshevik, and the Bolsheviks as a conservative idealist. Certainly only one of the three could be right, and that one is the Bolsheviks."[13] He escaped from Vienna frequently by extended consulting trips to major construction projects in England, Italy, France, Algeria, and Latvia, adding greatly to his engineering experience.

In 1938, he emigrated to the United States and took up a post at Harvard University. By the end of the war, he had consulted on the Chicago subway system, Newport News Shipways construction, and raising the Normandie, among others. He became an American citizen in March 1943.[14] He was awarded the Frank P. Brown Medal in 1946. He remained as a part-timer at Harvard University until his retirement in 1953, at the mandatory age of 70.

In July 1954, he became the chairman of the Consulting Board for the construction of the Aswan High Dam. He resigned that post in 1959 after coming into conflict with the Soviet engineers in charge of the project but continued to consult on various hydroelectric projects, especially in British Columbia. He died in 1963, and his ashes were interred in South Waterford, Maine, near "Bear's Corner", the family retreat.


The American Society of Civil Engineers established in 1960 the Karl Terzaghi Award to an "author of outstanding contributions to knowledge in the fields of soil mechanics, subsurface and earthwork engineering, and subsurface and earthwork construction."[15] The Terzaghi and Peck Library, which is managed by the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute, in Oslo, Norway, holds an extensive collection of his papers.

The Mission Dam in British Columbia, Canada, was renamed in his honor as the Terzaghi Dam in 1965.

As Professor Goodman describes him, Karl Terzaghi was a remarkable man and an impassioned engineer. As he put it himself, "All the modest achievements which I have to my credit can be described by a simple formula… Guided by common sense and casual observations, I recognized weak points in traditional procedures and tried to make them less weak. Sometimes I failed, but usually I succeeded."[16]

See also


  • Terzaghi, K., Theoretical Soil Mechanics, John Wiley and Sons, New York (1943) ISBN 0-471-85305-4.
  • Terzaghi, K., Peck, R. B. and Mesri, G., Soil Mechanics in Engineering Practice, 3rd Ed. Wiley-Interscience (1996) ISBN 0-471-08658-4.
  • Terzaghi, K., "Large Retaining Wall Tests", Engineering News Record Feb.1, March 8, April 19 (1934).
  • Terzaghi, K., From theory to practice in soil mechanics;: Selections from the writings of Karl Terzaghi, with bibliography and contributions on his life and achievents John Wiley and Sons (1967).
  • Terzaghi, K., Proctor, R. V. and White, T. L., "Rock Tunneling with Steel Supports," Commercial Shearing and Stamping Co. (1946).
  • Terzaghi, K., American Society of Civil Engineers, "Karl Terzaghi: The Engineer as an Artist" American Society of Civil Engineers (1999) from http://ascelibrary.org/doi/book/10.1061/9780784403648
  • Terzaghi, K., American Society of Civil Engineers, "Terzaghi Lectures, 1974-1982," American Society of Civil Engineers (1986) ISBN 0-87262-532-X.


  1. ^ B. M. Das, Principles of Geotechnical Engineering, Cengage Learning, 2010, p 7 ISBN 978-0-495-41132-1
  2. ^ R. E. Goodman, Karl Terzaghi, American Society of Civil Engineers, 1999, p 13 ISBN 0-7844-0364-3
  3. ^ a b Goodman p 16
  4. ^ Goodman p 57
  5. ^ Goodman p 67
  6. ^ Goodman p 94-95
  7. ^ Plath, A. S., Letter's Home by Sylvia Plath--Correspondence 1950-1963, Harper and Row, 1975, ISBN 0-06-013372-4
  8. ^ Goodman p 119
  9. ^ Goodman p 150
  10. ^ "History of the ISSMGE". ISSMGE. Retrieved 22 July 2013.
  11. ^ Reint De Boer The Engineer and the Scandal-a piece of scientific history Springer Verlag (2005) ISBN 978-3-540-23111-0
  12. ^ Goodman ch 12
  13. ^ Goodman p 168
  14. ^ Goodman p 207
  15. ^ asce.org
  16. ^ Karl Terzaghi's Legacy in Geotechnical Engineering, available by Geoengineer.org

External links

1883 in science

The year 1883 in science and technology involved some significant events, listed below.

1963 in science

The year 1963 in science and technology involved some significant events, listed below.

Bearing capacity

In geotechnical engineering, bearing capacity is the capacity of soil to support the loads applied to the ground. The bearing capacity of soil is the maximum average contact pressure between the foundation and the soil which should not produce shear failure in the soil. Ultimate bearing capacity is the theoretical maximum pressure which can be supported without failure; allowable bearing capacity is the ultimate bearing capacity divided by a factor of safety. Sometimes, on soft soil sites, large settlements may occur under loaded foundations without actual shear failure occurring; in such cases, the allowable bearing capacity is based on the maximum allowable settlement.

There are three modes of failure that limit bearing capacity: general shear failure, local shear failure, and punching shear failure.

Cinna Lomnitz

Cinna Lomnitz Aronsfrau (4 May 1925 – 7 July 2016) was a Chilean-Mexican geophysicist known for his contributions in the fields of rock mechanics and seismology.

Effective stress

Effective stress is a force that keeps a collection of particles rigid. Usually this applies to sand, soil, or gravel.

If you pinch a stack of coins between your fingers, the stack stays together. If you then loosen the pressure between your fingers, the coin stack falls apart. Similarly, a pile of sand keeps from spreading out like a liquid because the weight of the sand keeps the grains stuck together in their current arrangement, mostly out of static friction. This weight and pressure is the effective stress.

Effective stress is easy to disrupt by the application of additional forces; every footstep on a sand pile demonstrates this. It is an important factor in the study of slope stability and soil liquefaction, especially from earthquakes.

Graz University of Technology

Graz University of Technology (German: Technische Universität Graz, short TU Graz) is one of five universities in Styria, Austria. It was founded in 1811 by Archduke John of Austria and currently comprises seven faculties. The university is a public university. It offers 18 bachelors and 33 masters study programmes (of which 16 are in English) across all technology and natural science disciplines. Doctoral training is organised in 14 English-speaking doctoral schools. The university has more than 13,000 students, and approximately 2,000 students graduate every year. Science study programmes are offered in the framework of NAWI Graz together with the University of Graz.

The university has a staff of 3,324. Research areas are combined in five fields of expertise.

TU Graz, the University of Leoben and TU Wien form the network Austrian Universities of Technology (TU Austria) with approximately 47,000 students and 9,000 staff.

Harry Bolton Seed

Harry Bolton Seed (August 19, 1922 – April 23, 1989) was an educator, scholar, former Professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He was regarded as the founding father of geotechnical earthquake engineering.

International Society for Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering

The International Society for Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering (ISSMGE) is an international professional association, presently based in London, representing engineers, academics and contractors involved in geotechnical engineering. It is a federation of 89 member societies representing 90 countries around the world, which together give it a total of some 19,000 individual members. There are also 38 corporate associates from industry. The current ISSMGE President is Professor Charles W.W. Ng of The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

List of Istanbul Technical University people

This is a list of people associated with Istanbul Technical University in Turkey.

Norman Medal

The Norman Medal is the highest honor granted by the American Society of Civil Engineers for a technical paper that "makes a definitive contribution to engineering science".

This list contains recipients of the Norman Medal since 1874 (the first year it was awarded).

October 2

October 2 is the 275th day of the year (276th in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. 90 days remain until the end of the year.

Paul Fillunger

Paul Fillunger (June 25, 1883 in Vienna – March 7, 1937 in Vienna) was an Austrian geotechnical engineer.

Raised in a family of engineers, he studied at the Technische Hochschule in Vienna and took a position in the state-owned railway company in 1906. In 1908 he completed a PhD and then went to teach mathematics, machine industry and then mechanics at the University of Vienna.

Fillunger pioneered the study of saturated ground and was made famous by an article published in 1913.He discovered the difference in behaviors of the effective and general stresses in samples of ground, opening the way for further research. He is considered to be a pioneer of the theory of liquid-saturated porous solids.Fillunger's theories put him in heated conflict with Karl von Terzaghi, who is often referred to as "father of soil mechanics", whom Fillunger was accused of slandering. The University blamed Fillunger, who then committed suicide by opening the gas jets in the bathroom with his wife.


Poromechanics is a branch of physics and specifically continuum mechanics and acoustics that studies the behaviour of fluid-saturated porous media. A porous medium or a porous material is a solid (often called matrix) permeated by an interconnected network of pores (voids) filled with a fluid (liquid or gas). Usually both solid matrix and the pore network (also known as the pore space) are assumed to be continuous, so as to form two interpenetrating continua such as in a sponge. Many natural substances such as rocks, soils, biological tissues, and man made materials such as foams and ceramics can be considered as porous media. Porous media whose solid matrix is elastic and the fluid is viscous are called poroelastic. A poroelastic medium is characterised by its porosity, permeability as well as the properties of its constituents (solid matrix and fluid).

The concept of a porous medium originally emerged in soil mechanics, and in particular in the works of Karl von Terzaghi, the father of soil mechanics. However a more general concept of a poroelastic medium, independent of its nature or application, is usually attributed to Maurice Anthony Biot (1905–1985), a Belgian-American engineer. In a series of papers published between 1935 and 1957 Biot developed the theory of dynamic poroelasticity (now known as Biot theory) which gives a complete and general description of the mechanical behaviour of a poroelastic medium. Biot's equations of the linear theory of poroelasticity are derived from

Equations of linear elasticity for the solid matrix,

Navier–Stokes equations for the viscous fluid, and

Darcy's law for the flow of fluid through the porous matrix.One of the key findings of the theory of poroelasticity is that in poroelastic media there exist three types of elastic waves: a shear or transverse wave, and two types of longitudinal or compressional waves, which Biot called type I and type II waves. The transverse and type I (or fast) longitudinal wave are similar to the transverse and longitudinal waves in an elastic solid, respectively. The slow compressional wave, (also known as Biot’s slow wave) is unique to poroelastic materials. The prediction of the Biot’s slow wave generated some controversy, until it was experimentally observed by Thomas Plona in 1980. Other important early contributors to the theory of poroelasticity were Yakov Frenkel and Fritz Gassmann.

Recent applications of poroelasticity to biology such as modeling of blood

flows through the beating myocardium have also required an extension of the equations to nonlinear (large deformation) elasticity and the inclusion of inertia forces.

Robert Wynne-Edwards

Sir Robert Meredydd Wynne-Edwards CBE, DSO, MC and bar (1 May 1897 – 22 June 1974) was a British civil engineer and army officer. Wynne-Edwards was born in Cheltenham and educated at Giggleswick School and Leeds Grammar School before being commissioned into the Royal Welch Fusiliers at the outbreak of the First World War. He served on the Western Front in France where he received a Mention in Despatches, Distinguished Service Order and a Military Cross and bar for his gallantry and leadership. Following the war he studied engineering at Christ Church, Oxford from which he graduated with second class honours in 1921.

Wynne-Edwards emigrated to Canada working on several contracts in Vancouver including the Detroit–Windsor Tunnel. He returned to Britain in 1935 following a slump in the Canadian building industry and joined John Mowlem & Co. where he was given the task of constructing the William Girling Reservoir. The newly constructed dam later collapsed and Wynne-Edwards enlisted the expertise of the Building Research Station and Karl von Terzaghi to prove that he was not at fault. During the Second World War Wynne-Edwards was seconded to the Ministry of Works where he became their director of plant.

After the war Wynne-Edwards was managing director of Richard Costain Ltd, specialising in pipelaying and also served on several boards and committees for the British Government. For this latter role he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Wynne-Edwards was also involved with the Institution of Civil Engineers serving on many committees and being elected their one hundredth president in 1964. He was knighted in the Queen's Birthday Honours of 1965.

Rock mass classification

Rock mass classification systems are used for various engineering design and stability analysis. These are based on empirical relations between rock mass parameters and engineering applications, such as tunnels, slopes, foundations, and excavatability. The first rock mass classification system in geotechnical engineering was proposed in 1946 for tunnels with steel set support.

Ruth Doggett Terzaghi

Ruth Doggett Terzaghi (October 14, 1903 – March 3, 1992) was both a Geologist and a professor of Geology. She worked with her husband Karl Terzaghi on many engineering projects, as well as completed many papers and research projects of her own.

T. William Lambe

Thomas William Lambe (November 28, 1920 in Raleigh, North Carolina – March 6, 2017 in Sarasota, Florida) was an American geotechnical engineer and an emeritus professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.Lambe studied civil engineering at North Carolina State, receiving his bachelor's degree in 1942. He studied at MIT starting in 1943, working with Donald Wood Taylor in 1948. He assisted Karl von Terzaghi and Taylor in their work as consultants. He was Professor of Civil Engineering until his retirement in 1981, when he was the head of the Geotechnical Engineering Department and the director of the Soil Stabilization Laboratory. He also worked as a consulting engineer.

Lambe was also involved in the Apollo Program for which he designed the soil experiments. He is an honorary member of the American Civil Engineers Association (ASCE) and the Institution of Civil Engineers. He received the Norman Medal of the ASCE in 1964, the Terzaghi Award in 1975. He was the Terzaghi Lecturer in 1970, and the Rankine Lecturer in 1973. In 1997 he gave the Spencer J. Buchanan Lecture at the Texas A&M University.

Terzaghi's principle

Terzaghi's Principle states that when a rock is subjected to a stress, it is opposed by the fluid pressure of pores in the rock.

More specifically, Karl von Terzaghi's Principle, also known as Terzaghi's theory of one-dimensional consolidation, states that all quantifiable changes in stress to a soil [compression, deformation, shear resistance] are a direct result of a change in effective stress. The effective stress is related to total stress and the pore pressure by the relationship;

reading that total stress is equal to the sum of effective stress and pore water pressure.

Terzaghi Dam

Terzaghi Dam is the key diversion dam in the Bridge River Power Project. It forms the project's largest reservoir, Carpenter Lake west of Lillooet. Originally known as the Mission Dam, it was renamed Terzaghi Dam in 1965 to honor Karl von Terzaghi, the civil engineer who founded the science of soil mechanics. It is located about 30 km up the Bridge River from its confluence with the Fraser.

It stands at the head of the Big Canyon of the Bridge River, completely blocking the river, which is diverted through two tunnels through Mission Mountain to a pair of powerhouses on Seton Lake. The difference in elevation between Carpenter Lake, the reservoir formed by Terzaghi Dam, and the two powerhouses on Seton Lake is c. 410 m, which in combination with the flow of the entire Bridge River generates 480 megawatts in electrical power.

Completed in the 1950s, it was the expansion of a concept first launched in the 1920s by the Bridge River Power Development Co. but abandoned due to rising costs and collapsed investments as a result of the Great Depression. It was later resumed by BC Electric during the post-war boom after World War II and a first diversion and powerhouse completed in 1948 (180MW), the second in 1960 (300MW).

Projects organizing timed releases of water through Terzaghi Dam to enable fish-spawning ecology in the nearly-dry Bridge River below the dam are underway.

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