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ecuscino | Created: 25 May 2023 | Updated: 20 Nov 2023
Geotechnical History blog
soil mechanics

Review of Foundations, Abutments, and Footings (Hool and Kinne, Eds., 1923)

By Michael Bennett, E.I.T., M.ASCE – A.G.E.S., Inc., King of Prussia, PA

Section 1: Soil Investigation

When members of any technical field review its history, it can powerfully remind them that their predecessors only established the basic principles of the discipline through many arduous repetitions of a cycle of research, discovery, and debate.  For instance, many current geo-professionals may date the founding of their field to the 1925 publication of the first modern geotechnical reference, a book by Karl Terzaghi titled Erdbaumechanik auf Bodenphysikalischer Grundlage (Earthwork Mechanics Based on Soil Physics).  Others may also cite work by earlier pioneers, such as Coulomb, Darcy, and Rankine, in describing the origins of the discipline.  Yet focusing entirely on the work of a few founders, extremely important though it was, obscures its historical context within the development of a technical discipline.  In geotechnical engineering, for instance, the building of foundations and earth structures prior to 1925 (and even for years afterward) was an often-chaotic process that featured frequent contradictions between design methods based only on theory and construction techniques based purely on contractor experience and field conditions (Goodman 1999).


Title page of Erdbaumechanik by Karl Terzaghi
Title page of Erdbaumechanik (1925) by Karl Terzaghi, truly the founding book of modern geotechnical engineering.
Source: Collection of M. Bennett.


Only 100 years ago, the collective understanding of the engineering behavior of soil and rock was a jumbled mess.  In 1923, the key components of modern geotechnical work – uniform, rigorous codes and procedures for sampling, testing, design, and construction; quantitative parameters to represent the engineering behavior of soil and rock; widespread recognition of the importance of using experiential judgment to complement calculative design – all remained to be developed.  A century ago, desktop studies, subsurface investigation, engineering parameter development, generation and finalization of designs and specifications, and observation of construction were all yet to be united into a new, independent discipline of civil engineering.  Terzaghi, whose 1925 book would herald a paradigm shift in both the theory and practice of subsurface engineering, was in 1923 an engineering lecturer at Robert College (now Boğaziçi University) in Constantinople (now Istanbul).  There, he was finishing research to describe the consolidation of loaded clays using his newly developed principle of effective stress.  Terzaghi would prominently feature both principles in Erdbaumechanik, alongside other key findings from his five years of pioneering geotechnical research (Goodman 1999).


Even without any breakthrough publications in geotechnical engineering, 1923 remained an eventful year around the globe.  That August, US President Warren Harding unexpectedly died, most likely from a heart attack, and was succeeded by his Vice-President, Calvin Coolidge.  Weeks later, in early September, the Japanese metropolises of Tokyo and Yokohama were rocked by the MW 8.0 Great Kanto Earthquake, which killed nearly 140,000 people. (The technical studies commissioned by the Imperial Government following the temblor would eventually lead to key advances in seismology.) In November, the government of Weimar Germany – already ravaged by a year of rampant hyperinflation – had to stave off a coup attempt by the fledgling Nazi Party and its leader, World War veteran Adolf Hitler.  Noteworthy side stories for the year included the unsealing of the tomb of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun (aka “King Tut”) in February, the first issue of Time magazine in March, the opening of Yankee Stadium in April, the patenting of the three-color traffic light in November, and the debut of the HOLLYWOOD sign in December (History 2009, History 2018, Hollywoodsign 2017, Long 2007, Maciborski 2023, NCC 2022, TIME 2023, USGS 2023).


Black and white photograph of Yankee Stadium in 1923
Inaugural Opening Day at Yankee Stadium in Bronx, NY, April 18, 1923.
Source: Maciborski (2023).


Meanwhile, in the midwestern United States, Professors George Hool and William Kinne at the main (Madison) campus of the University of Wisconsin were putting the final touches on a six-volume series on structural engineering.  Both men, like many professors of civil engineering (and other disciplines) in 1923, had been hired to teach college students after earning bachelor’s degrees – Hool at MIT, Kinne at Wisconsin itself.  Each of the six books in the series had been written in sections by subject-matter experts; Hool and Kinne had then compiled and edited these sections.  Five volumes dealt with topics such as the design of bridges, connections, and reinforced concrete.  The sixth volume, Foundations, Abutments, and Footings, dealt with topics which are widely recognized in 2023 as fundamentals of geotechnical engineering (UMW 1914).

Black and white photographs of Hool and Kinne.
Professors George Hool and William Kinne of the University of Wisconsin, Madison in the 1914 school yearbook.
Source: UMW (1914).


Black and white advertisement for Hool and Kinne book set
Advertisement in Engineering News-Record for the six-volume Hool and Kinne reference set on structural engineering, 1924.
Source: ENR (1924).


Exactly 100 years after its publication, Foundations, Abutments, and Footings may best serve modern geo-professionals as a historical reference for better understanding best practices in their field just before the debut of modern soil mechanics.  What did best practices in the design and construction of foundations look like in the Roaring Twenties?  What are the most obvious changes that the field has undergone in the past century, and what, if anything, has remained largely unchanged since then?  What potential future geotechnical advances, if any, might be suggested by common practices from 1923?  Each section of Foundations, Abutments, and Footings will be reviewed separately to help answer these questions.


Chicago civil engineers Robert Smith and Tirrell Ferrenz authored Section 1 of Foundations, Abutments, and Footings, titled “Soil Investigation”.  Outside sources provide further background on both engineers.  As of 1923, Smith and Ferrenz were both experienced practitioners in foundation design.  Both men had served in the US Army as engineers during the World War (later given the retronym of World War I) a few years earlier.  In the early 1920s, Ferrenz practiced as both a licensed architect and a civil engineer in the Windy City, a connection which underscores the close historical relationship between the two disciplines.  Meanwhile, Smith spent the 1920s as an independent foundation engineer following two decades in the partnership of Chicago civil engineer Edward Shankland.  In 1897, Shankland had achieved a milestone in foundation engineering when he published the first time-settlement curves, spanning several years and many inches, for a building foundation in Chicago which he had designed.  Shankland correctly identified the squeezing out of incompressible water from the clay – i.e., consolidation – as the driving mechanism behind the settlement he observed (Marquis 1926, Skempton 1979, Skempton 1981).


Subsurface diagram
Summary of subsurface exploration performed under supervision of civil engineer Robert Smith for Allerton Hotel in Chicago, December 1922. The facility stands and remains in service over 100 years later as the Warwick Allerton.
Source: ISGS (2023).


Smith began Section 1 of Foundations, Abutments, and Footings by noting, “Sub-surface investigations should precede the designing of foundations in order to determine the existing soil conditions, and the safe bearing power of the soil” (Smith and Ferrenz 1923).  He then reviewed several techniques for subsurface exploration, including the excavation of test pits, the performance of “rod tests” involving the pounding of a segmented rod into the earth using a large hammer, the drilling of unsampled soil borings using crew-operated manual drills with either augers or wash (water) jets, and the coring of bedrock.  Ferrenz then finished Section 1 by summarizing the limits for bearing pressures on soils as stated in the building codes of dozens of major US cities (Smith and Ferrenz 1923).


21st-century geo-professionals will find the origins of many current best practices scattered throughout Section 1 of Foundations, Abutments, and Footings.  For example, the rod tests described by Smith strongly resemble modern tests for the spectral and/or multi-station analyses of surface waves (SASW and MASW), which often rely on blows from sledgehammers to collect seismic response data for sites.  The rod test also has parallels to the Cone Penetration Test.  Moreover, Smith observed that noting changes in the color and/or consistency of the auger cuttings or wash jet residue reaching the surface at each boring, sampled or not, was crucial to inspecting the drilling of geotechnical borings using either hollow-stem augers or mud rotary techniques still follow this advice.  Lastly, excavating test pits to better assess near-surface subsurface conditions remains a staple of many geotechnical investigations, especially early in the design process (Smith and Ferrenz 1923).


Yet other elements of Section 1 clearly reflect how dramatically the geotechnical standard of care has improved since 1923.  At one point, Smith recommended clearing obstructions in borings using small quantities of dynamite, potentially an extremely dangerous proposition – especially before the dawn of techniques for reliably locating existing utilities.  Similarly, Ferrenz observed, with clear irritation, during his discussion of municipal building codes and allowable bearing pressures on soils that a “marked divergence in the terms used to describe the same soil condition” existed (Smith and Ferrenz 1923) – i.e., that civil engineering lacked standardized terminology for describing soils.  Early geotechnical engineers would pioneer such systems for classifying soils over the coming years and decades.  The Public Roads (now AASHTO) system would make its debut in 1929, while the USCS would be developed during World War II before its general introduction in 1948 (Casagrande 1948, Hogentogler and Terzaghi 1929, Smith and Ferrenz 1923).


One of the most striking differences between the best practices for subsurface investigation articulated in Foundations, Abutments, and Footings and those commonly used in 2023 might lie in the recovery and use of in situ soil samples.  Smith made clear in his description of common contemporary techniques for geotechnical exploration that many civil engineers then practicing considered soil samples obtained from auger cuttings, wash refuse, or manual grabs in test pits to be sufficient for foundation design.  However, he also implicitly acknowledged that such practices might be inadequate to provide the most accurate subsurface information obtainable, even by the standards of 1923.  Smith wrote that “the best method of taking samples” was for drillers conducting a rod test or advancing a drilling rod to attach a short piece of thin-walled pipe to the leading end of the rod at the depth of interest.  This allowed for the recovery of a disturbed yet relatively intact soil specimen (Smith and Ferrenz 1923).


Black and white photograph of a derrick
Derrick set up at urban site for subsurface exploration using wash-jet boring techniques.
Source: Smith and Ferrenz (1923).


Modern geo-professionals may see within Smith’s rod sampling procedure a forerunner of the modern Standard Penetration Test.  Indeed, by 1923, the development of the SPT was well underway roughly 850 miles east of Chicago.  During the late 1890s, Boston civil engineer Col. Charles Gow had supervised extensive subsurface explorations for the city’s new subway system based on wash-jet boring techniques.  He had noted that the wash-jet technique was useful mainly for determining where the top of rock lay within a given boring and that it gave limited, if any, information on soil conditions within the boring.  Eventually, Gow began having his crews use a 1-inch-diameter drive spoon to take a largely intact, albeit highly disturbed, soil sample whenever cuttings in the wash-jet refuse indicated a change in site stratigraphy.  He eventually made his sampling procedure standard practice for his firm when he founded the Gow Construction Company in 1902 (Rogers 2009).


By 1923, as Foundations, Abutments, and Footings went to press, Gow Construction crews in metropolitan Boston had spent over two decades sampling soil strata using drive spoons as a routine component of their work.  Engineers at the Raymond Concrete Pile Company, to which Gow sold his firm that year, continued improving this procedure.  The Raymond engineers began counting the number of blows from a 140-pound weight falling 30 inches required to obtain a sample.  Raymond also had outside consultants redesign the drive spoon to collect a larger-diameter sample more easily.  In 1926, Charles Gow met Karl Terzaghi when Terzaghi appeared before an MIT committee of prominent civil engineers on which Gow sat to propose, successfully, that the Institute fund instruction and research on geotechnical engineering.  Perhaps not coincidentally, Terzaghi soon began using the Gow-Raymond sampling procedure extensively in his own work.  In 1947, he officially named the procedure the “Standard Penetration Test” (Goodman 1999, Rogers 2006, Rogers 2009).


Photo of a wood Gow boring boxn ext to a tape measure
Boxes for soil samples from Gow Construction both before (wood) and after (steel) its acquisition by Raymond Concrete Pile, along with a Raymond-era sample jar. Tape measure for scale.
Source: Collection of M. Bennett.


Photo of opened wood box next to a tape measure
Interior of wooden box for soil samples from Gow Construction. Each interior slot is about 1.5” wide. Tape measure for scale.
Source: Collection of M. Bennett.


Overall, Section 1 of Foundations, Abutments, and Footings highlights both key aspects of geotechnical history and important lessons within the historical discipline overall.  Most people readily grasp how having a working knowledge of major historical events can help societies learn from and, sometimes, correct past mistakes.  Critically reviewing history through a big-picture lens, though, can be even more valuable than examining specific events or ideas.  Doing so may reveal some of the perspectives common in earlier generations, how some people eventually challenged the assumptions and thought processes within those perspectives, and how those challenges, whether successful or not, changed society.  Those who consider history from a macroscopic perspective often better equip themselves both to reconsider the assumptions inherent within their own societies, institutions, or professions and to devise constructive solutions to overcome current challenges within those groups.


Successful innovators, such as Henry Ford of the Model T, Juan Trippe of Pan Am, and Steve Jobs of Apple, have almost always envisioned better worlds that didn’t yet exist.  These visionaries have seen past the common assumptions and biases of their contemporaries and have chosen to pursue bringing their seemingly unthinkable dreams to reality.  While such a combination of foresight and tenacity is no guarantee of bringing one’s vision to fruition – as the historical record readily attests – almost all successful makers of positive change have had it.  Put differently, these innovators have realized the dimensions of the boxes within which their world lies, have thought outside of, and knocked down the walls of, these boxes, and have, in the process, opened new horizons toward which they then pull the world.  Karl Terzaghi achieved this feat nearly 100 years ago when he effectively established the modern field of geotechnical engineering, and a re-examination of the development of the discipline may reveal many remaining smaller-scale opportunities to reimagine basic tenants of practice.  Collectively, these likely opportunities may provide a powerful answer to the logical, reasonable question of what makes the study of geotechnical history worthwhile.





Casagrande, A. 1948. “Classification and Identification of Soils.” Trans. Am. Soc. Civ. Eng., 113 (1), 901-930.

Engineering News-Record (ENR). 1924. Weekly issue, November 27.

Goodman, R.E. 1999. Karl Terzaghi: The Engineer as Artist. Reston, VA, USA: ASCE Press. 2009. “February 16, 1923: Archaeologist Opens Tomb of King Tut.” Accessed April 21, 2023.

-. 2018. “Beer Hall Putsch.” Accessed April 21, 2023.

Hogentogler, C.A., and C. Terzaghi. 1929. “Interrelationship of Load, Road and Subgrade.” Public Roads, 10 (3), 37-64. 2017. “1923: A Sign is Born.” Accessed April 21, 2023.

Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS). 2023. “Publications.” Illinois State Geological Survey. Accessed April 30, 2023.

Long, T. 2007. “Nov. 20, 1923: Traffic-Signal Patent Has GE Seeing Green.” Accessed April 21, 2023.

Maciborski, N. 2023. “Yankees Magazine: ‘Some Ballyard’.” Major League Baseball. Accessed May 7, 2023.

Marquis, A.N. 1926. Who’s Who in Chicago: A Book of Chicagoans. Chicago, IL, USA: A.N. Marquis and Co.

National Constitution Center (NCC). 2022. “Generations Later, President Warren Harding’s Sudden Death Recalled.” National Constitution Center. Accessed April 21, 2023.

Rogers, J.D. 2009. “Gow, Mohr, Terzaghi, and the Origins of the Standard Penetration Test.” Joint Meeting, Association of Environmental & Engineering Geologists and American Society of Civil Engineers, Chicago, IL, USA: Presentation, 90 pp.

Skempton, A.W. 1979. “Landmarks in Early Soil Mechanics.” Proc., 7th Euro. Conf. Soil. Mech., 1-26.  In Selected Papers on Soil Mechanics by A.W. Skempton, F.R.S. (1984), J.B. Burland, ed. London, UK: Thomas Telford Ltd., 251-276.

-. 1981. A Bibliographic Catalogue of the Collection of Works on Soil Mechanics: 1764 – 1950. London, UK: Imperial College of Science and Technology.

Smith, R.C., and T.J. Ferrenz. 1923. “Section 1: Soil Investigation.” In Foundations, Abutments, and Footings (1923), G.A. Hool and W.S. Kinne, eds. New York, NY, USA: McGraw-Hill, 1-25.

TIME. 2023. “TIME Celebrates 100 Years of Trusted and Impactful Storytelling.” Cision PR Newswire.

United States Geological Survey (USGS). 2023. “M 8.0 – 5 km SSE of Oiso, Japan: 1923-09-01, 02:58:35 (UTC).” USGS. Accessed April 21, 2023.

University of Wisconsin, Madison (UWM). 1914. The Badger (Yearbook), Volume 28. St. Paul, MN, USA: Randall. Accessed May 7, 2023.




Thomas Kennedy of Geopier, Davidson, NC, co-authored a previous version of this entry published on an independent webpage in 2021.