Ernest L. Ransome — The Engineer Who Put the Steel in Concrete

by Robert L. Harrison

The Arctic Oil Works was established in 1884 at Illinois & Center Streets in San Francisco. Between 1885 and 1905, San Francisco was the world’s principal whaling port. © Bancroft Library

Concrete as a common building material all but vanished between the end of the Roman Empire in the fifth century and when it was rediscovered by Europeans in the 19th century. But it took a California based engineer, Ernest Ransome, to develop new techniques to ensure its widespread use.

Portrait of Ernest L. Ransome, c. 1910. From H. Colin Campbell’s book “The Ransome Book: How to Make and How to Use Concrete,” 1917. © Ransome Co.

Ernest Leslie Ransome was born in Ipswich, England in 1844. His father Frederick Ransome -superintendent of the Ransomes and Sims Iron Works- prospered enough for his family of nine children to afford four servants. In 1859 young Ernest joined the factory as an apprentice where concrete was used to manufacture artificial stone for ornamental purpose.

Notwithstanding his comfortable beginnings, in 1870 the young Ransome chose to move to America, settling in San Francisco in 1871. That year his wife Mary Jane joined him at their 1114 Clay Street residence. Perhaps prompted by Ransome’s own family experience, he and his wife went on to raise eight children.

It was in San Francisco where Ransome developed a form of structural concrete that lead to its wide-spread use -something which had not been seen since Roman times. It is commonly believed the Romans were the first to use structural concrete as it is used today. They used it in every kind of structure from aqueducts to temples. The fact that many Roman concrete structures are still in use today stands in sharp contrast to the recent failure of expansion joints on the six-decade old San Rafael-Richmond Bridge. The Pantheon in Rome is possibly the finest example of the engineering, design and permanence of Roman concrete buildings. Michelangelo described the Pantheon as an “angelic and not human design.”

Ransome became the pre-eminent innovator in the revitalization of concrete as a building material. He rejuvenated the lost technology in the 1870s working from his San Francisco office at 10 Bush Street, where he developed methods for pouring concrete over iron and steel bars to improve its tensile strength. in 1877 The Mechanics Institute recognized his technical skills by electing him as a trustee of the local chapter.

His Arctic Oil Building Works warehouse, completed in San Francisco in 1884, was the first large reinforced concrete building in America. By that year he had moved his office to 402 Montgomery Street where he designed the Alvord Lake Bridge in Golden Gate Park. The 1889 bridge was the first reinforced concrete bridge in America and survives today as the world’s oldest reinforced concrete structure of its kind. Today the bridge carries four lanes of traffic on Kezar Drive, while below pedestrians, bicyclists and skateboarders enjoy Golden Gate Park.

Alvord Lake Bridge, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, 2019. Constructed in 1889, the first reinforced concrete bridge in America. © Robert L. Harrison

Other buildings designed by Ransome using reinforced concrete include the Pacific Coast Borax Works in Alameda, the Stanford University Art Museum, Stanford’s original Roble Hall, the Greystone Cellars Winery in Saint Helena, and the Western Pacific Railroad Depot in Oakland. The Borax Works was built in 1889 with the first use of ribbed floor construction, a building method still used today.

The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire in 1906 enhanced Ransome’s reputation for the strength and durability of his building methods. While the brick and stone buildings adjacent to his reinforced concrete structures were totally destroyed, the buildings constructed using his methods and materials come through the ordeal virtually unscathed.

It is the adaptability of reinforced concrete to be shaped that makes possible the curved arches of the Marin County Civic Center, a visual design used by Frank Lloyd Wright reminiscent of Roman aqueducts. © Marin Parks

Other engineers and architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, began using the material pioneered by Ransome. They recognized its adaptability to be molded into nearly any shape, allowing structures to exist in both curvilinear and unadorned geometric forms. Wright’s 1908 Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois is considered the world’s first modern concrete building. His widely admired designs for the Fallingwater residence in Pennsylvania, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the Marin County Civic Center are examples of the material’s versatility.

Ransome was recognized internationally. The German newspaper Beton u. Eisen commented, “He published a pamphlet on his work in 1894, an important historical document on steel-concrete. Ransome was at that time in a position to draw attention to two large and important applications of his system of construction….These are historical, and may be considered previous to all European beam constructions. We refer to the Museum building, Leland-Stanford University, and the building of the Pacific Coast Borax Co. Altogether Ransome’s life shows that he is a great pioneer and must be named in the first rank.”

Ransome moved his family to Oakland in 1889 and to New York a few years later. Some say he left the Bay Area because he was bitter at the lack of acceptance and limited use of his reinforced concrete techniques and designs. In the 1912 book Reinforced Concrete Buildings, Ransome describes his frustration in 1884 when presenting his newly patented techniques to strengthen steel bars: “…when I presented my new invention to the technical society in California, I was simply laughed down….”

Like many pioneers, he encountered resistance to his revolutionary methods when first introduced. Yet, since his March 1917 death in Plainfield, New Jersey, his work has deservedly been given full recognition. Historian Carl Condit called Ransome “the man who did more than anyone else to make reinforced concrete a common structural material.”

An April 1917 article in the Architect and Engineer of California stated: “Ernest L. Ransome, pioneer in reinforced concrete building construction in the United States, whose death was noted last month, is credited with having built the first reinforced concrete buildings in America. Bulletin №12 of the Association of American Portland Cement Manufacturers in 1906 says: ‘….we can bestow the greater credit and honor upon him for the courage and splendid mechanical and engineering ability which he displayed in undertaking construction of steel concrete buildings of such magnitude in a country subject to earthquakes; and the value of his discoveries has been further accentuated by the fact that during the recent great earthquake in California all of the above structures came through the ordeal unscathed….’ It is said of Mr. Ransome that he was the inventor of more machinery for the purpose of mixing and placing concrete than all other inventors combined.”

Originally published at https://annetkent.kontribune.com.

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