Elmina Wilson

by Don Friedman on March 13, 2019

I happened across a link that led me to an article about Elmina Wilson at the website for the Iowa State University College of Engineering. I had never heard of her, but her bio is impressive. After getting her BS and MS in Civil Engineering (1892, 1894) at Iowa State, she then taught there for seven years, first as an instructor and then as an assistant professor. She then went to work at consulting firms, ending with Purdy & Henderson. At that firm, which was more or less the first structural engineering consultancy for buildings in the US, she worked on iconic New York skyscrapers including the Met Life Tower and the Municipal Building.*

That would be a great resume for any engineer of that era. The obvious follow-up to that observation is just how impressive it was for a woman circa 1900. Ms. Wilson was the first woman to graduate from Iowa State’s engineering program, the first woman to get a master’s in engineering in the country, and the first woman to be a full-time professor of engineering in the country. She must have been a truly remarkable individual to manage all that.

The picture above shows the Iowa State campus in 1913, about a decade after she left for the east. But her presence is still there: she worked on water tower structure left of center. Here’s a blow-up of it:

At 168 feet tall, it was her first practical experience with the framing of tall skeleton structures.

* As a side note, there’s an odd error in the ISU article. It says that the Whitehall Building Annex, which Ms. Wilson worked on, was “the tallest office building in New York at the time of its completion in 1910.” Since the Met Life Tower (an office building) was completed in 1909 and was the tallest building in the world until the Woolworth Building was constructed, that claim can be see to be wrong just by looking up one line on the page.

The Discussion Will Be Fascinating

March 4, 2019

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat – a group that treats skyscrapers as an integral part of architecture, engineering, and urban planning – is planning on having a discussion of the origins of skyscrapers at their upcoming 10th World Congress this fall. The discussion – officially, the First Skyscraper/Skyscraper Firsts Symposium – is […]

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Unintended Consequences

February 13, 2019

There’s some great reading up at the SCOSS web site, but I don’t recommend it for bedtime. The SCOSS Alert “Effects of Scale” published late last year, discusses what happens when reality doesn’t match simplified structural models, and the answers range from not pretty to potentially catastrophic. In short, engineers don’t analyze buildings, we analyze […]

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Book Review: Empirical Structural Design for Architects, Engineers, and Builders

February 4, 2019

Empirical Structural Design for Architects, Engineers, and Builders by Thomas Boothby is exactly what its long title suggests: a textbook on how to design without modern analysis. Empirical design can mean a lot of things, but on page 1, Mr. Boothby makes it clear what he wants to talk about. He gives an example for […]

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The State of NYC’s Supertall Boom

January 29, 2019

Spiky: Curbed has a map.

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A Broader Base is Better

January 5, 2019

In structures, and in the engineering profession.

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The First Step Is a Doozy

January 3, 2019

When the Interborough Rapid Transit Company opened the Fulton Street station on what’s now called the Lexington Avenue express (the 4 and 5 trains) in 1905, it was simply a station serving the business district between City Hall and Wall Street. That district, the original commercial core of the city, was the target for all of […]

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An Analysis of Rooftop Farming

December 29, 2018

The construction of buildings does not remove or destroy land acreage, it simply converts some of it to rooftops. People have had plantings on roofs for a very long time – the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, were planted terrace roofs – and one of the reasons […]

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A Lucky Path

December 27, 2018

The way in which we decide on college for ourselves is, frankly, weird. When you’re 16 or 17, you make decisions that can affect the rest of your life and you do so without the information to make the decision properly. You do so without even the knowledge that you don’t have the information to make […]

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December 23, 2018

The underside of the approach spans of the Manhattan Bridge, in Dumbo. Thanks to the spiffy new paint job, the horizontal-plane cross-bracing is the most visually prominent element; but I love the ridiculously short and squat masonry piers that support the two spans (one above my head, one further away).

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