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Stephen Timoshenko: the father of engineering mechanics

This eminent Michigan Engineering professor dramatically reshaped engineering education – and lived two sets of lives.| Medium Read

Stephen Prokofievitch Timoshenko, often called the “father of engineering mechanics” in the United States, led a movement that dramatically reshaped American engineering education in the early 20th century.

Timoshenko was professor of engineering mechanics at Michigan for just nine short years (1927-1936), in the era between the two World Wars, but his brief presence on the Ann Arbor campus had a profound impact not just on his students but on the entire field. Through his relentless research efforts, Timoshenko formulated the essential rules for how structures deform under stress; established the foundations of the theory of the elastic behavior of solid matter; and introduced scientific and mathematical approaches to mechanics instruction.

EnlargeIllustrated portrait of Timoshenko

Timoshenko helped to merge the prevailing hands-on American engineering training methods with his more rigorous approach. He combined theory with practice, teaching not just how but why. And this is the engineering education standard that remains to this day.

But this eminent teacher also lived two sets of lives – the first in Russia before the revolution; the second, afterward, in the United States. Timoshenko was educated and became a prominent scholar in Russia. But the Russian revolution created many difficulties for him and his family. And when he first arrived in the United States, at the age of 44, Timoshenko was not at all fluent in English.

Timoshenko’s Early Years
Timoshenko was 
born on December 23, 1878, in a small
 village near Kiev. He entered high school in Romny in 1889, studied there for five
 years, and enrolled at the Institute of Ways of Communication, St. Petersburg, where he received his degree as a civil engineer in 1901.

As a student Timoshenko was able to save money from summer work, and with another 100 rubles from his father he traveled with friends to Europe, where he marveled at the clean and efficient ways of the west. Upon returning to Kiev, what had once “seemed beautiful, smart” now “looked so poor: the cobbled street, rumbling four-wheel carts, shabby passenger traps, dirt everywhere, stench from cellars.”

This first taste of travel appears to have set his life’s path. “Why was I such a ‘Westernizer’ [after this trip]?” he wrote. “I do not know, but Westernizer I have remained all my life.”

This first taste of travel appears to have set his life’s path. “Why was I such a ‘Westernizer’ [after this trip]?” he wrote. “I do not know, but Westernizer I have remained all my life.”

After graduation Timoshenko spent a year in the Army, where he offered free lessons in arithmetic and other subjects. Timoshenko returned to his alma mater to teach mechanics before accepting a position as assistant professor at the
 Polytechnic Institute in St. Petersburg, and by 1906, Timoshenko had become its chair of Applied Mathematics in Kiev.

In Kiev Timoshenko taught, and published his first papers, but he also found time to spend part of each year studying in Munich and in Gottingen – and to get married to 
Alexandra Archangelokaja, a medical student at that time.

It was an extremely productive time: eight published papers on elasticity and elastic stability, and a collection of problems on strength of materials. By 1909, Timoshenko has already been elected dean.

But less than two short years later, things would change drastically.

By 1911, Russian reforms of the previous decade were giving way, and the quota on Jews admitted to institutes of higher learning were being enforced again. “Excess” Jewish students at Kiev Polytechnic were therefore ordered to be expelled, but its top administrators – which included Timoshenko – “did not hurry to meet this demand.”

“The upshot,” wrote Timoshenko, “was that in early February 1911, three of the Institute’s deans, I among them, were fired – and suddenly found ourselves with no salary and without the government apartments that until then we had lived in. Out of a feeling of solidarity, the Left-oriented professors all submitted their resignations. The resignations were accepted, and the Polytechnic had suddenly lost 40 percent of its faculty.”

As Russia entered its violent period of revolution, travel brought difficult and unexpected adventures, and Timoshenko and his family often had to split up and remain apart for extended periods to avoid danger.

Though Timoshenko was not officially associated with an educational institute for the next two years, he still published several papers on elasticity in Russian, French, and German, and his influence grew. His first book, Strength of Materials, was published in Russian in 1911 (followed by 12 editions, through 1932). The first in a long series of his papers 
on thin elastic plates appeared in 1913. That same year Timoshenko became professor of the theory of elasticity at the Institute of Engineering of Way and Communication, and was chair of the Theory of Elasticity as Applied to Ships from 1914 until 1918. It was during these years that Timoshenko published his famous book, Theory of Elasticity.

The Revolution
As Russia entered its violent period of revolution, travel brought difficult and unexpected adventures, and Timoshenko and his family often had to split up and remain apart for extended periods to avoid danger. Constant skirmishes among opposing forces would often crop up, usually without warning, and with no discernible pattern.

EnlargeIllustration of a train

By 1918, political and social unrest had worsened to such an extent that Timoshenko had to flee St. Petersburg. In Kiev, Timoshenko associated with the anti-Bolshevik Volunteer Army (or White Forces) – and he knew, if the Bolsheviks defeated them and retook Kiev, his status as a reserve ensign who had evaded the Bolshevik draft would place him in peril.

For weeks and sometimes months at a time Timoshenko had to stay on the move, often scrounging for decent places to sleep and eat. As the Bolshevist army advanced, Timoshenko planned various escape routes, and jockeyed among both official and unofficial means of obtaining appropriate passports and visas for his travels. Journeys, once begun, were sometimes altered when news would reach him that another town had been taken – often just before he was about to travel there.

But in so many instances, Timoshenko’s well-traveled past and professional renown provided for him what he called “luck” – meaning critical assistance from a well-placed former student, or a governmental or other official who had heard of him and could provide important information or documentation just in the nick of time.

The most “lucky” of these circumstances, apparently, was that he had once been awarded a certificate at a Society of French Engineers tribute event. That certificate – and that alone – gained him a berth on a French steamer leaving from Sevastapol to Constantinople at a time when all other options had been exhausted.

“This, I think,” wrote Timoshenko, “was the only time in my life that a certificate of academic distinction had any practical value.”

Timoshenko hurriedly boarded that ship to Constantinople, leaving his family behind in Kiev. Following a fitful journey, Timoshenko found himself in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, where he would become chair of Applied Mathematics in the Polytechnic Institute in

Timoshenko later learned they had taken the last train out of Kiev.

“That was the very thing I was praying for,” Timoshenko wrote. “I had to act.”

Timoshenko made his way back to Kiev by way of Vienna and Warsaw – where he was reunited with his family after a seven-month absence. Soon after his arrival in Kiev, however, the Bolsheviks were on its outskirts. Poles were being evacuated, and immediate departure was his only wise choice. Trains leaving Kiev were accepting Poles, not Russians – but again a former student “luckily” intervened. This student – an engineer in charge of boarding procedures – made certain a berth was available to his former professor and his family. Timoshenko later learned they had taken the last train out of Kiev.

The trip back to Zagreb was not without adventure, but once he found acceptable quarters for his family, Timoshenko was back at work – until he received a letter from yet another former student about employment in America.

Timoshenko faced a difficult choice. He loved teaching, and he enjoyed Zagreb. But while he was earning enough money to feed and clothe his family, he had little left for anything else. He knew that better economic opportunities were available in America – but more important was the language barrier.

“I longed to have my books in Russian published in a Western-European language,” Timoshenko wrote. Finally Timoshenko accepted the job, in Philadelphia – and he took a leave of absence from the Polytechnic in Zagreb for three months. Enough time to decide whether to stay in America or return to Yugoslavia.

When the time came, Timoshenko decided to have his wife and youngest child join him, but he left the older two children at home to continue their Russian-style engineering education. Timoshenko already had seen enough to know that if his children were to join him in the U.S. they would receive an inferior education to that which was already available to them in Russia.

EnlargeIllustration of Timoshenko walking

Work and Life in the United States
Timoshenko would later join the Westinghouse Research Laboratory in Pittsburgh, where he taught an evening seminar on strength of materials to newly hired employees. Though Timoshenko’s students were all recent graduates of American engineering schools, Timoshenko was amazed at their complete lack of strength-of-materials theory training. So he convinced his boss to let him spend time translating and adapting his Russian strength of materials textbook for use by Westinghouse engineers.

Timoshenko attracted and was surrounded by a nucleus of highly talented engineers at Westinghouse, where in four years he published some 20 papers 
and one book. And having realized the critical need for a journal dedicated to engineering
 mechanics, Timoshenko was instrumental in founding the Applied Mechanics
Division of the A.S.M.E. and its Journal
 of Applied Mechanics.

Still Timoshenko grew restless at Westinghouse. He wanted to teach, study and to write. He needed more time to develop all the new books he was planning in his head.

“I knew that as long as I remained at the [Westinghouse] factory,” Timoshenko wrote, “there would never be peace and quiet, and I would be unable to do work in science.”

The Michigan Years
In the spring of 1927, Timoshenko received a telegram from the University of Michigan School of Engineering dean, who invited him to found a school of Advanced Mechanics – the first its kind in the country – and to develop a research laboratory.

“It was the answer to my dream,” Timoshenko wrote.

And the legacy he would leave in American engineering education had begun.

Timoshenko immediately transformed the curriculum by overturning the traditional engineering teaching model by concentrating on the core of the matter – mathematics.

But he didn’t always feel he fit. Professors at that time were obliged to sit in their offices from nine to five, he once wrote, with a short break for lunch. But they “did not find this requirement burdensome because those who were engineers usually had private clients on the outside, whose work they would do on university time in their university offices, and in this way increase their earnings.”

And he recalled another time, when a group of professors had received a “dressing down” for getting drunk and “acting like hooligans” in front of students during a football game.

“Here at the university I had to deal with younger people, and they were strikingly coarse and ill-mannered.”

He wasn’t entirely impressed by his students, either: “At Westinghouse I had been in contact with adults. Here at the university I had to deal with younger people, and they were strikingly coarse and ill-mannered. They had not a trace of respect for professors.”

As examples, Timoshenko noted that students would enter his office without first removing their hats and coats – or even so much as saying hello before launching into the reasons for their visits. On his way home, he would be annoyed that students wouldn’t even think to make way for him as they passed on the sidewalk, forcing Timoshenko to step aside and into mud puddles – which raised the ire of Mrs. Timoshenko, who grew weary of having to clean their floors of the dirt from her husband’s shoes. But once Timoshenko realized the problem, he decided not to make way for them, either.

“In view of my height and weight,” Timoshenko wrote, “the method worked.”

Timoshenko ran a summer school program in mechanics from 1929 until the mid-1930s. Its teachers were professors as well as engineers, often European-educated and well-versed in theory. The program attracted doctoral candidates, and Michigan’s reputation grew. Timoshenko became a U.S. citizen, and his advanced courses attracted graduate students from all over the world, and helped to develop the country’s first B.S. and Ph.D. programs in engineering mechanics. And he would prevail upon famous colleagues to deliver lectures at the
 Summer Symposia of the Engineering Mechanics Department.

According to the Technic, Timoshenko was an engaging and dynamic teacher who was able to “bring a human dimension to a topic that in lesser hands might have been dull.” In an interview, Timoshenko “revealed” himself as “a man of calm dignity, congenial nature, and a sophisticated sense of 
humor.” When the Technic writer noted that Timoshenko was interested in economics, “he smilingly confided that his brother, Vladimir, of the Business 
Administration school, probably knows more about 
the subject.” Timoshenko also was said to be “attracted… to concerts at Hill Auditorium… and we’re certain that he has a poignant 
interest in literature.”

Many of Timoshenko’s students also became prominent teachers of mechanics, while others became directors of large research and other organizations. And with the help of those students, Timoshenko wrote seven books during
 his eight-year Ann Arbor tenure.

After a while Timoshenko found himself spending less time writing and more time mentoring students, who were conducting their own research and writing their own papers and books. It was said that Timoshenko didn’t have students; he had disciples. Few teachers were as respected or admired.

Later Years: Ideas Take Root
In 1936, with his wife Alexandra’s health worsening, Timoshenko took a position at Stanford, where the climate was more conducive to her condition. Once there, Timoshenko would publish another dozen textbooks, continuing what would become a permanent shift toward a blend of the theoretical and the practical in engineering education.

With more federal money devoted to higher education following WWII, engineering departments were able to more broadly apply Timoshenko’s methods. Timoshenko’s impact is still felt today, and his many textbooks are still in use. Timoshenko redefined the discipline of engineering in the United States – and for this achievement the American Society of Mechanical Engineers created the Timoshenko Medal for contributions in applied mechanics, and honored Stephen P. Timoshenko as its first recipient in 1957.

Dr. Stephen Prokofievitch Timoshenko died in 1972.

Sources for this story include:vAs I Remember: The Autobiography of Stephen Timoshenko, Stephen P. Timoshenko (1968); Michigan Engineering Department of Mechanical Engineering history; and The Michigan Technic (Jan 1931 and Feb 1952).

Illustrated portrait of Timoshenko
Illustration of a train
Illustration of Timoshenko walking
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