Scientist of the Day - Charles Alton Ellis
Charles Alton Ellis, an American structural engineer, died Aug. 22, 1949, at the age of 73. Elli was born in 1876 in Parkman, Maine, in the central part of the state, and went south to attend Wesleyan University in Connecticut, my old alma mater. where he majored in math. He then pursued the study of engineering at the University of Illinois. He taught for a few years at the University of Michigan, worked in the private sector designing buildings and bridges, and thEn joined the faculty of the University of Illinois in 1916, where he established a reputation as a mathematically adept design engineer, especially in the new field of suspension bridge engineering.
Ellis was plucked from academic life in 1922 by Joseph Strauss, who ran an engineering firm in Chicago. Strauss was actively lobbying to build a bridge over the Golden Gate in San Francisco, and in 1921, he and the city engineer of San Francisco had issued a proposal to construct such a bridge. Ellis was apparently hired to do the mathematical calculations for various Strauss projects, which would eventually include the Golden Gate Bridge.
Strauss’s initial proposed bridge had only a small suspension segment in the center – the rest was cantilevered truss (third image). But his concept drew objections from many as ugly and ill-suited for the location. To keep the proposed bridge project alive, Strauss hired the best consulting engineers he could find to amend his original design, and he did well at this, adding Othmar Ammann (whose George Washington Bridge would open in 1931) and Leon Moisseiff (who had designed the recently opened Ben Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia), to go with Ellis, already on staff, and several San Francisco engineers and a geologist. Moisseiff and Ellis were the only two capable of doing the calculations for a suspension bridge; moreover, they both wanted to break from the traditional Brooklyn Bridge model suspension bridge, with its heavy masonry towers, to a design with lighter and leaner steel towers. To complicate the calculations, they had to take into account the great length of the span (4200 feet), and the fact that the Golden Gate was subjected to some of the strongest tidal currents of any large city, and with winds that would stress any bridge, especially a suspension bridge.
Ellis took the initiative, and over the course of several years, and in continual telegraphic touch with Moisseiff, he developed the beautiful design that you see on the cover of an issue of Western Construction News in 1930 (fourth image). Most of the objections to Strauss’s original “rat-trap” mishmash of girders and cables dissipated in the light of Ellis’s elegant suspension design. The design of the towers, the other notable feature of the bridge, was not in Ellis’s bailiwick; they were conceived by John Eberson and Irving Morrow; we have written a post on Morrow.
So Ellis had designed the world’s most beautiful suspension bridge. As a reward, Ellis was summarily fired by Strauss in 1931, who complained about Ellis’s obsession with detail and his interminable calculations and correspondence with Moisseiff. That was lamentable, but well within the rights of a chief engineer. What was not acceptable, then or now, is that Strauss wrote Ellis out of the historical record, claiming the design for himself. Ellis went on to teach at Purdue University, no doubt feeling unappreciated. When the bridge opened in 1937, Ellis was neither invited nor mentioned, nor was he included on the plaque, which listed all the major contributors, and mentioned 12 engineers, but not Ellis (sixth image). When Ellis died in 1949, hardly anyone knew that he was the principal design engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge, and that Strauss was not. Strauss was honored with a statue for his contribution. I would show you a photo of the statue, but it makes me angry to see it, so you will just have to look it up.
Fortunately, historical truth often finds its way out of the box, no matter how tightly nailed shut it might be. In 1986, John Van der Zee published: Gate: The True Story of the Design and Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, for which he went to the Purdue University archives and uncovered Ellis’s role in the design, and Strauss’s deceit in covering it up. Official authorities were reluctant to admit that they had incorrectly assigned credit to Strauss for all those years, but in 2007, on the 70th anniversary of the opening of the bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge District relented and issued a follow-up report to the original report of the Chief Engineer, in which they gave principal credit for the design to Ellis. Appreciation was a long time coming, but it did come. Now, practically all the ready references, including Wikipedia, have it right.
Strauss’s statue is on the south end of the bridge, and it is unlikely that anyone is going to remove it, even in this age when activists are busily taking down statues of people they no longer like. There is another statue, on the north end of the bridge, called The Lone Sailor, installed 20 years ago (seventh image). Since there are lots of other Lone Sailors across the country (it is a public relations project of the U.S. Navy), I would like to suggest that this one be renamed: The Lone Architect. If it were rehatted as well, given a fedora instead of a watch-cap, it would do very nicely as a memorial for Charles Ellis.
Our first photo calls for a short explanation. It appeared (I believe) in an 1987 alumni newsletter of Wesleyan University, right after Van der Zee’s book came out, and Ellis (a Wesleyan alumnus) found the limelight. The article was then issued online in 2018 by Wesleyan, with no explanation of the photo, so we don’t know why it is all scratched and beat up. But I really like it – it suggests to me the battering that Ellis’s reputation suffered for so long, and also demonstrates that no amount of tarnish can diminish the beauty of Ellis’s creation, the Golden Gate Bridge.
William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor emeritus, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to email@example.com.