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Ellis, Charles Alton (American structural engineer, 1876–1949)



  • Existence: 1876 - 1949

Biographical Information

Educator, structural engineer, and mathematician Charles Alton Ellis was born in 1876 in Parkman, Maine. Ellis was an expert in bridge design, co-designing the Montreal Harbor Bridge and designing the structure of the Golden Gate Bridge almost single-handedly. Ellis took four years of mathematics and higher mechanics at Wesleyan University, where he received his A.B. degree in 1900. Upon graduation from Wesleyan, he worked at various engineering jobs, joining the staff of the American Bridge Company in 1902. It was in this position that Ellis received recognition for his calculus expertise when he calculated the stresses of the subway tubes under the Hudson River. He remained with the American Bridge Company until 1908, when he joined the faculty of the University of Michigan. Ellis remained as Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering at Michigan until 1912. He spent the following two years as a designing engineer for the Dominion Bridge Company. In 1914, he joined the faculty of the University of Illinois as Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering, and was promoted to Professor of Structural and Bridge Engineering the following year. He continued in this position until 1921, when he accepted a position as Vice President in charge of bridge design and construction supervision for the Strauss Engineering Corporation of Chicago.

In 1922, Ellis received his Civil Engineering degree from the University of Illinois. That same year, Joseph Strauss hired him to create a design for the Golden Gate Bridge. Ellis' job was to draw up new plans for Strauss and his team, as Strauss' own design had been rejected. In 1929, Strauss was officially selected as the bridge's chief engineer, with Leon S. Moisseiff, O.H. Amman, and Charles Derleth, Jr. as consulting engineers. Leon Moisseiff had developed a new theory of suspension bridge design, but it was Ellis' job to apply Moisseiff's theory in practice. In March 1930, under Strauss' authority, Charles Ellis began the preliminary design and estimates for the bridge, completing the overall design in four months. In June, Ellis' design was reviewed by the three consulting engineers. The Bridge District Board of Directors reviewed and enthusiastically accepted his design in August. Strauss, meanwhile, had turned in his Engineer's Report to the directors, and the report was not received favorably. Strauss believed that Ellis was responsible for the dissatisfaction on the part of the directors when Ellis refused to comment on the report to the directors.

In September, Ellis gave the keynote address at the first West Coast meeting of the National Academy of Sciences in Berkeley, California. His speech was about the theory behind the design of the Golden Gate Bridge. In November, Ellis began computing thousands of calculations for the bridge, including suspension ropes, floor beams, and cables. Ellis wrote the specifications for all ten bridge construction contracts, which included everything from cable wire to concrete for the anchorages. He supervised the test boring and siting, which involved the complicated process of locating firm footing on the Marin shore. Working twelve to fourteen hours per day, Ellis personally made all the computations and the entire design for the bridge. In October 1931, Strauss began pressuring Ellis to finish his work. Ellis felt that he needed to take the time needed to ensure his calculations were correct for the safe design of the bridge. In November, voters approved a bond issue providing funding for the Golden Gate Bridge. The following month, Strauss ordered Ellis to go on vacation. Three days before his vacation ended, in December 1931, Strauss instructed Ellis that he would no longer be needed for the project. Strauss stated in his letter that the design for the bridge was "nothing unusual and did not require all the time, study, and expense which [Ellis] thought necessary for it." Ellis was replaced by Clifford Paine, a former student of his who had no knowledge of suspension bridges, and all mention of Ellis was removed from the bridge materials. Construction began on the bridge in early 1933, and it formally opened in 1937. Heralded as a beautiful monument, in addition to serving as the West Coast entrance to America, the bridge opened with great fanfare. On the South Tower, a plaque honoring Strauss, his assistants, consultants, district directors, and others was unveiled. Although the bridge design was almost single-handedly his own, Ellis was never properly credited for his contributions to the project, and the plaque bore no mention of his name.

After Ellis ceased work on the Golden Gate Bridge project in 1931, he took up private practice as a consulting engineer in Chicago, serving as an advisor to the PWA on suspension and cantilever bridge applications for loans and grants. In September 1934, he joined the faculty of Purdue University as Professor of Structural Engineering. He remained at Purdue until his retirement in 1946. Ellis was the author of the standard textbook on framed structures, in addition to writing numerous articles on bridge design and related subjects. He was a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Concrete Institute, and the American Railway Engineering Association. In addition to his professional memberships, he was a member of the Sigma Xi, Tau Beta Pi, Chi Epsilon, and Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternal organizations. He died on August 22, 1949, in an Evanston, Illinois hospital, just twelve years following the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge. In 1994, the American Society of Civil Engineers named the Golden Gate Bridge one of the "Seven Wonders of the Modern World."

Found in 3 Collections and/or Records:

Charles A. Ellis papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MSF 460
Scope and Contents The Charles A. Ellis Papers document the professional career of structural engineer Charles Ellis. Types of materials in the collection include correspondence, writings, printed material, photographs, organization chart, financial estimates, and information on professional achievements. Although some biographical information and a small number of personal photographs are included in the collection, the papers primarily document Ellis' involvement with the design of the Golden Gate Bridge in San...
Dates: 1911-1946; Other: Majority of material found in 1928-1938; Other: Date acquired: 11/30/1996

Charles A. Ellis collection of supplementary papers

 Collection — Box: 1
Identifier: MSP 107
Scope and Contents Materials related to the life and career of Charles A. Ellis and the building of the Golden Gate bridge.
Dates: 1911 - 2004

Mark D. Bowman papers

 Unprocessed — Multiple Containers
Identifier: 2024-013