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Charles Alton Ellis (1876–1949) & Golden Gate Bridge

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 06, 2013 6:15 pm    Post subject: Charles Alton Ellis (1876–1949) & Golden Gate Bridge Reply with quote

Charles Alton Ellis (1876–1949)- The Designer of Golden Gate Bridge

Educator, structural engineer, and mathematician Charles Alton Ellis (1876-1949) was born in 1876 in Parkman, Maine. Ellis was an expert in bridge design, co-designing the Montreal Harbor Bridge and designing the structure of the Golden Gate Bridge almost single-handedly. Because of a dispute with Joseph Strauss, he was not recognized for his work when the bridge opened in 1937.

Early Education
Charles Ellis took four years of mathematics and higher mechanics at Wesleyan University, where he received his A.B. degree in 1900. After college, Ellis quickly discovered that his first academic love, Greek, did not pay. Upon graduation from Wesleyan,he worked at various engineering jobs, joining the staff of the American Bridge Company in 1902. It was in this position that Ellis received recognition for his calculus expertise when he calculated the stresses of the subway tubes under the Hudson River. He remained with the American Bridge Company until 1908, when he joined the faculty of the University of Michigan.

Professorship in Universities
Ellis remained as Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering at Michigan until 1912. He spent the following two years as a designing engineer for the Dominion Bridge Company. In 1914, he joined the faculty of the University of Illinois as Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering, and was promoted to Professor of Structural and Bridge Engineering the following year. He continued in this position until 1921, when he accepted a position as Vice President in charge of bridge design and construction supervision for the Strauss Engineering Corporation of Chicago. In 1922, Ellis received his C.E. degree from the University of Illinois.

By 1922 he would be expert enough to author a benchmark textbook in the field, Essentials in the Theory of Framed Structures.

See also: http://www.amazon.com/Essentials-Theory-Framed-Structures-Charles/dp/110300011X
Odd Couple
In 1922, Joseph Strauss found in Ellis the engineering expert he needed for his dream of a bridge across the Golden Gate. Unlike Strauss, Ellis had no inclination to seek fame. The pair was quite odd -- the sly businessman and the professor who lived by the credo, "happiness cannot be found by merely seeking it. It is far more satisfactory than mere pleasure."

Trying to sell his vision of the bridge, Strauss mentioned Ellis' credentials as often as he could in business meetings and proposals, often prefixing Ellis' name with "Doctor" or "Professor." Ellis was too immersed in his duties to pay much attention.

Visionary Technical Team
Ellis’ job was to draw up new plans for Strauss and his team, as Strauss’ own design had been rejected. In 1929, Strauss was officially selected as the bridge’s chief engineer, with Leon S. Moisseiff, O.H. Amman, and Charles Derleth, Jr. as consulting engineers. Leon Moisseiff had developed a new theory of suspension bridge design, but it was Ellis’ job to apply Moisseiff’s theory in practice.

In March 1930, under Strauss’ authority, Charles Ellis began the preliminary design and estimate for the bridge, completing the overall design in four months. In June, Ellis’ design was reviewed by the three consulting engineers. The Bridge District Board of Directors reviewed and enthusiastically accepted his design in August. Strauss, meanwhile, had turned in his Engineer’s Report to the directors, and the report was not received favorably. Strauss believed that Ellis was responsible for the dissatisfaction on the part of the directors when Ellis refused to comment on the report to the directors.

He was spending months working out the practical details of a suspension bridge design dreamed up by bridge designer Leon Moissieff. The two visionaries worked in tandem to master all of the equations necessary to calculate forces at the Golden Gate, though they were separated by hundreds of miles. Telegrams flew between Ellis in Chicago and Moissieff in New York, aggravating Strauss, who did not understand the complexity of the engineering work. He soon accused Ellis of wasting time and money.

In November 1931, after several legal and technical delays, Strauss ordered Ellis to take a vacation and to turn his work over to a subordinate. Though Ellis, immersed in countless details and worried about aspects of the bridge's design, wished to continue working on the bridge's towers, he did as he was told. Towards the end of his vacation, Ellis received a letter from Strauss telling him not to come back.

Hard Times

Though his relationship with Strauss had always been somewhat strained, Ellis was shocked. He had poured his entire being into the bridge for three years; the challenges had consumed him. Harsher realities soon set in. Even an accomplished engineer such as Ellis had trouble finding steady work during the Great Depression. His book was still a mandatory text for Harvard and Yale engineers, but a hiring freeze left no room for exceptions.

Obsessive Review
Forced into semi-retirement, Ellis revisited the computations for the Golden Gate Bridge. He labored over the numbers obsessively. Investing about 70 hours per week, he executed a complete review of the numbers in five months, working unpaid. Ellis discovered problems that alarmed him and he lobbied the project's current engineers to pay heed. Moisseiff, still a player in Strauss' regime, reviewed Ellis' letters but concluded the fears were misplaced.

Ellis was replaced by Clifford Paine, a former student of his who had no knowledge of suspension bridges, and all mention of Ellis was removed from the bridge materials. Construction began on the bridge in early 1933, and it formally opened in 1937.

Forgotten Designer
Heralded as a beautiful monument, in addition to serving as the West Coast entrance to America, the bridge opened with great fanfare. On the South Tower, a plaque honoring Strauss, his assistants, consultants, district directors, and others was unveiled. Although the bridge design was almost single-handedly his own, Ellis was never properly credited for his contributions to the project, and the plaque bore no mention of his name.

Statue of Strauss near Golden Gate Bridge
After Ellis ceased work on the Golden Gate Bridge project in 1931, he took up private practice as a consulting engineer in Chicago, serving as an advisor to the PWA on suspension and cantilever bridge applications for loans and grants.
In September 1934, he joined the faculty of Purdue University as Professor of Structural Engineering. He remained at Purdue until his retirement in
1946. He was considered a fine teacher and was well-liked by his students.

In addition to authoring the standard textbook on framed structures, Prof. Ellis wrote numerous articles on bridge design and related subjects. He was a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Concrete Institute, and the American Railway Engineering Association. In addition to his professional memberships, he was a member of the Sigma Xi, Tau Beta Pi, Chi Epsilon, and Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternal organizations. He died on August 22, 1949, in an Evanston, Illinois hospital, just twelve years following the completion of the
Golden Gate Bridge. In 1994, the American Society of Civil Engineers named the
Golden Gate Bridge one of the “Seven Wonders of the Modern World.”

Belated Credit

Not until 1949, when an obituary named him as the bridge's designer, did Ellis receive any recognition for his enormous role in the design and engineering of the bridge. Whether he ever saw or stood on the bridge is not known. But in all the years Ellis spent laboring over the numbers -- in ten volumes of calculated dimensions, loads, wind stresses, and the like -- he had made the bridge his own.


van der Zee, John (2000). The Gate: The True Story of the Design and Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. Backinprint.com. ISBN 978-0-595-09429-5.

For more details and pictures of Golden Gate Bridge-
see: http://www.sefindia.org/forum/viewtopic.php?p=47946
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