Canadian Consulting Engineer

Karl Terzaghi, the Engineer as Artist

December 1, 1999
By Canadian Consulting Engineer

BOOKSBy Richard E. Goodman (1999, ASCE Press)The name Karl von Terzaghi is one of the best known in geotechnical engineering. The writings of this outstanding engineer are impeccable when used as a re...


By Richard E. Goodman (1999, ASCE Press)

The name Karl von Terzaghi is one of the best known in geotechnical engineering. The writings of this outstanding engineer are impeccable when used as a reference. Most, however, know him through his textbook, Soil Mechanics in Engineering Practice which he authored with Ralph Peck.

Professor Goodman’s biography is welcome in that it provides a background of the man, lists his trials and tribulations, his successes and failures. Most importantly, the book provides glimpses into the problem-solving methods adopted by Terzaghi which brought him such success.

Goodman is candid about less well regarded personal traits of his subject. He describes Terzaghi’s turbulent relationships, his imperious and at times tyrannical behaviour, his warm feelings towards Hitler at one stage in his life, and other flaws. Goodman also shows how Terzaghi’s partner, his second wife, Ruth, managed to put focus into his somewhat tempestuous life.

Most engineers who read Goodman’s book will do so with a view to discovering what set Terzaghi apart as a professional. Goodman shows that Terzaghi’s analytical knowledge was not based on a single discipline. Rather he shared with other great engineers knowledge of wide aspects of engineering, as well as a true regard for nature. He was adept in the fields of reinforced concrete, hydraulics, geology and soil science as well as soil mechanics. He was bold in interpreting site data, bold in predicting soil behaviour and thorough in defining variables. But perhaps the most succinct description of his working method is provided in a quotation from Professor Alec Skempton: “Winston Churchill wouldn’t read a memo unless it was less than one page. Terzaghi’s drawings were the same. He said if you couldn’t get it down on one letter-sized sheet, you weren’t thinking clearly.”

Another quotation that seems to describe the essence of Terzaghi as an engineer, are his own words at the Fourth International Congress on Soil Mechanics: “Soil mechanics, he [Terzaghi] observed, had arrived at the borderline between science and art … I use the term “art” to indicate mental processes leading to satisfactory results without the assistance of step-for-step logical reasoning….To acquire competence in the field of earthwork engineering one must live with the soil. One must love it and observe its performance not only in the laboratory but also in the field, to become familiar with those of its manifold properties that are not disclosed by boring records.”

Many readers will emerge with mixed emotions from the discovery of Terzaghi as someone who was fallible, unable to recognize the contributions of some others, such as the brilliant work conducted by the Swedish Committee investigating landslide phenomena. The engineer was unfair at times in his treatment of his loyal supporter and one-time colleague Arthur Casagrade, and others.

Terzaghi would have been a wonderful instructor to listen to. He solved many seemingly insurmountable problems in geotechnical engineering and was generous in providing information to others on how it was done. Whether or not the reader would wish to have actually met the man at the centre of this excellent biography, however, is an open question.

Review by Colin Alston, P.Eng.

Alston Associates Inc. Consulting Engineers, Markham, Ontario


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