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.

Concrete, Part 1

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I mentioned once that engineers tend to develop personal styles in their designs, which is something obvious to engineers but occasionally surprising to other people. Part of those styles is preference for some materials. For example, I prefer steel for building frames, although I’ve also worked with concrete. In any case, the Guardian’s “concrete week” […]

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The Discussion Will Be Fascinating

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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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The Whole Gang

March 1, 2019

I recently posted a photo of a worker (or maybe two) chalking his name in a church attic. Here’s another spot in that attic, near the ladder down to the occupied spaces. Click on the picture above to expand it, and enjoy over a hundred years of graffiti. From the top down we’ve got SB […]

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Naming Conventions

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I somehow missed this article in the Times last month: Think Snowstorms Are Rough Now? Check Out These Vintage New York Blizzards. Great stuff.

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The Tombs, Sort Of

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Everywhere You Look

February 18, 2019

I set out to find a mildly-amusing historical artifact connected to today’s Presidents’ Day holiday. I figured I’d look for something about Lincoln, who I admire quite a bit more than I do Washington. (For those unfamiliar with the holiday: Washington’s birthday is February 22, Lincoln’s is February 12, and the Washington’s Birthday holidays has […]

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A Building Ghost Explains His Haunting

February 11, 2019

In a way, that’s the best ghost picture I’ve taken. It’s another old one, but it shows clearly how this phenomenon occurs. Here are the demonstrable facts: The building on the left is an architecturally-forgettable hotel constructed in 2001. The building on the right is a generic NY loft building constructed in 1918. Here are […]

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