Wilbur M. Wilson
Teacher, analyst, researcher, experimentalist, structural engineer
By Professor Emeritus William J. Hall
Wilbur Wilson's research advancements in the fields of fatigue of structures and the strength of joints and connections, and his contributions to the education of advanced engineering students, brought great credit to the University and had a major influence on engineering practice nationally and internationally.
Born July 6, 1881, in West Liberty, Iowa, Wilson pursued his advanced education at Iowa State College, where he received the B.M.E. degree in 1900, and the C.E. degree in 1914. He received an M.M.E. degree from Cornell University in 1904. At Iowa State College, where he began his career, he rose from Instructor in 1901 to Associate Professor in 1906-07. At this point he entered practice as a structural detailer, designer and estimator for the Illinois Steel Co., a position he held from 1908-11. In 1912 and 1913, he was the Chief Designer for the Strauss Bascule Bridge Co. At that point, Wilson joined the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, rising from Assistant Professor of Structural Engineering in 1913 to Research Professor in 1921, and retiring as Emeritus Research Professor in 1949, a career that was interrupted by his military service from 1917-1919.
Beginning in 1919 until his retirement in 1949, Wilson's experimental work on the strength and behavior of structures and structural elements was outstanding and widely acclaimed throughout the world. He developed laboratory apparatus to undertake the testing of nearly full-scale reinforced concrete arch and rigid frame bridges, and promoted the art of design of such structures. This work led to studies of rollers for bridges, and during the 1930s to the design and operation of large-scale walking-beam fatigue machines devoted to repeated loading studies of large structural elements and connections. One major application of this latter work centered on the design/construction of the Golden Gate Bridge.
In the decade before his retirement, Wilson became deeply immersed in research leading to improved structural connections through the use of high-strength bolts. He played a significant role in the establishment of the Research Council on Riveted and Bolted Joints (RCRBJ) of the Engineering Foundation, which served to carry his research into practice; this is often cited as one of the most important structural developments of the period. He received a special award from the RCRBJ in 1956 for his outstanding contributions to structural practice.
Through his research program and his contact with graduate students and the research assistants who worked with him in his laboratory, Wilson had a major influence on the careers of these future engineers, many of whom subsequently made major contributions to our nation in engineering education, research and professional practice. He was the author or co-author of 42 University of Illinois Engineering Station Bulletins and Circulars, as well as numerous journal articles.
Among his many honors were two awards of the Octave Chanute Medal (1915 and 1937) of the Western Society of Engineers, the J. James R. Croes Medal (1936) and Honorary Membership (1949) from the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Wason Medal (1939) from the American Concrete Institute, and the honorary degree of Doctor of Engineering (1949) and the Marston Medal (1942) from Iowa State College.
Wilson married Teresa May Stewart of Iowa City in 1905. They had two children, Grace and Matt. Wilson died November 28, 1958.