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A 100th birthday bash for a history-making lab

John Fritz in 1909, the year he vowed to Lehigh President Henry Drinker to build a modern lab.

John Fritz was 87 years old and very much in earnest in 1909 when he informed Lehigh President Henry Drinker, "You need an up-to-date engineering lab and I intend to build one for you."

Fritz’s promise was not something to be taken lightly. A self-taught engineer, he was already acclaimed as one of the founding fathers of America’s growing steel industry. As chief superintendent of Bethlehem Iron Company, beginning in 1860, he had invented a method of manufacturing iron rails for railroads and helped develop new ways of fabricating specialized steel forgings and armor plate.

In 1902, the nation’s top engineering societies had joined to establish the John Fritz Medal "as a memorial to the great engineer whose name it bears." The annual award has been granted to some of the world’s most notable scientists and is considered the highest honor in the profession of engineering.

Fritz had also served almost four decades on Lehigh’s board of trustees and counseled countless Lehigh engineering students, who referred to him affectionately as "Uncle John."

A national historic landmark

Fritz fulfilled his promise to Drinker, designing the Fritz Engineering Laboratory, supervising its construction and selecting its equipment. The lab was dedicated as a National Historic Engineering Landmark in 1992. Its facilities, including a 5-million-pound testing machine, have contributed to the construction of the Panama Canal, Golden Gate Bridge, George Washington Bridge and Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, to name just a few structures, and have also helped pinpoint the cause of some of the nation’s most famous structural failures.

This week, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Oct. 22-24, Lehigh’s civil and environmental engineering department is celebrating Fritz Lab’s 100th anniversary and its accomplished founder with symposiums, tours, speeches and a brainstorming session at which students and alumni will develop plans for the building’s uses over the next century.

"The original Fritz Laboratory was built to confront the civil and industrial challenges we then faced as a nation—mining, steel production, railways, roads, buildings, bridges, water supply and treatment systems among them," says Stephen Pessiki, chair of the department of civil and environmental engineering.

"Now, clean water, air, energy, and sustainability are the pressing issues of our day and they’re international in scope. While our challenges have evolved, what remains constant is our focus on education and research that addresses them."

One highlight of the three-day celebration will be a "Centennial Symposium" featuring a retrospective on Fritz and an examination of the trends that will shape civil and environmental engineering over the next 100 years. The symposium will run from 9 a.m. to noon on Friday, Oct. 23, in Packard Auditorium.

The next century in civil engineering

Kathy Caldwell, president-elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers, will give a presentation at the symposium titled "The View From Now: Civil Engineering’s Next 100 Years."

Mark Sarkisian ’84 M.S., structural engineering director with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP (SOM), will give a talk on "Civil Engineering’s 100-year Influence on the Built Environment." Stephen Cutcliffe, chair of Lehigh’s history department and an expert in the history of technology, will give a presentation titled "Uncle John Fritz: A Perfectionist Engineer."

On Saturday, Oct. 24, from 9 a.m. to noon in the Rauch Business Center’s Perella Auditorium, graduate and undergraduate students in the civil and environmental engineering department will give presentations of their research projects.

The Fritz celebration will also include tours of Fritz Lab, the ATLSS (Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems) Center, and ATLSS’s Real-Times Multi-directional Earthquake Simulation Facility. A surprise guest is expected for the concluding dinner scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24, in the Wood Dining Room of Iacocca Hall.

A distinguished roster

The Fritz Medal is presented by the American Association of Engineering Societies, an umbrella organization for 13 engineering and engineering- related professional societies in the United States, including the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

The medal is given for scientific or industrial achievement in any field of pure or applied science.

Fritz himself was the first recipient of the medal in 1902. Since then, it has been granted to such notable scientists and engineers as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Alfred Nobel, Herbert Hoover and Lord Kelvin.

Three members of Lehigh’s faculty have been awarded the Fritz Medal—the late Lynn Beedle (civil engineering) in 1995, Arthur Humphrey (chemical engineering) in 1997, and John Fisher (civil engineering) in 2000. George Tamaro ’61 M.S. received the medal in 2005.

Story by Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Tuesday, October 20, 2009

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