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Excerpts From the Lectures of

Gustave Magnel
Professor Gustave Magnel of Belgium, designer of the Walnut Lane
Memorial Bridge (America’s first major prestressed concrete structure)
was largely responsible for introducing prestressed concrete to the
United States. The late great teacher and eminent practicing engineer
from the University of Ghent (Belgium) contributed enormously to
the acceptance and development of prestressed concrete worldwide.
Beyond that, however, as attested unanimously by all of his students,
he was the most articulate teacher of his time. Here, in slightly edited
form, are excerpts from some of his memorable lectures.

• On Complicated Formulas (below the neutral axis), we notice

When I first gave lectures, I used to that the beam cambers upwards due to
cover the blackboard with complicated the prestressing moment (prestress
Gustave Magnel formulas – not on such a tiny one as force × its eccentricity). At the com-
pletion of prestressing, the beam still
(1889-1955) this, but on a big blackboard which
rests on the two end supports. What
has several sections such as are found
in the lecture rooms of the Belgian are the reactions on those two end
University. I was so proud of myself supports? Well, if everything is sym-
because I thought I was very clever. metrical, the reaction at each support
“A theory should be made as But now, since I am older, I have un- is equal to one-half the weight of the
derstood that writing complicated for- beam. What else could it be? And
simple as possible but not so
mulas does not really solve any practi- whether we apply a very large pre-
simple that it does not stress force or a small one, each reac-
comform with reality.” cal problems.
tion is always equal to one-half the
weight of the beam. It is statically de-
Albert Einstein • In Explaining the Action terminate.
of Prestressing in a Statically
Determinate Beam
Take the simple case of a beam rest- • On the Definition of Limit Design
ing on two supports. If we apply a pre- For years and until very recently, all
stress force at the ends of the beam engineers made designs based on cal-

culations of stresses. They take a nice haps a design, but it will be a foolish bank account! Ja, if you can afford to
sheet of paper – very clean – and they design – not an economical design. spend a lot of money – if you are, say,
make very clever calculations on them You must have done it over and over the president of General Motors or
and they come to the conclusion that in again, and have some practical experi- somebody like that, you see it doesn’t
that beam the concrete stress is 700 psi ence before you consider it. And then, matter how strong you make the beam
– or whatever it is – and the steel stress you have to determine the depth of the – you can afford to have a safety fac-
is 18,000 psi. And, they are satisfied – beam – well, that’s the only element I tor of three or more. However, if you
if those figures comply with the regu- must take arbitrarily. Ja, arbitrarily. have a very tight budget, you will
lations or with specifications or the But in practice it is not – generally, probably use a safety factor of two
code, or whatever one calls them – en- the depth is something that you have (but it must be at least two).
gineers are satisfied with that. to maintain… If we knew, for example, that we
But, if you think that the beam is could place on a beam twice the work-
satisfied – if you think the beam takes • In Explaining Continuity ing load – well, we would sleep very
any account of what you have written in a Prestressed Beam quietly during the night. We would
in those sheets – even if there are no say – well, nobody will put twice the
Let us now consider a continuous
mistakes – no arithmetical mistakes, working load on the beam, and if
beam having two equal spans. We pre-
numerical mistakes on those sheets – somebody does, we will “hang” him
stress the beam with tendons going
well, then you are wrong! Who is the for it! Let the beam then collapse – I,
from one end to the other. Assume for
authority who knows about that? the engineer, am no longer responsi-
the time being that the central support
There is only one authority in the ble. But, we must develop a theory
is missing – the beam would also
world who knows what happens in a which will allow us to calculate for a
curve upward like the simply sup-
beam – and that is the beam itself. My given cross-section at midspan, say, of
ported beam. But the central support is
method is to go directly to the beam a simply supported beam, the moment
there and it says to the beam, “Hey,
and ask it, “Say, my dear beam, tell of rupture – that’s what we must know
my little beam, please, you may not
me what are your stresses? What is for that beam.
lift up for I’m keeping you down.” In
your moment of rupture?”
other words, the support can only keep
that beam down by exerting an exter- • On Model Testing
• On Hooke’s Law nal force, i.e., an anchorage force If you want to derive meaningful
Yes, indeed, engineers don’t know downward – and that is only possible conclusions, perform your tests on
anything else – sure enough they mod- due to simple statics: if we have at real, big beams (60, 70, 100 or 150-ft
ify it, they call it the Theorem of Three each of the outside supports an up- spans) – not toys of 3 or 4 ft long, 2 or
Moments, Theory of Least Work, and ward reaction equal to one-half of the 3 in. deep, which I call “confidential”
Formulas for Bending and Torsion. anchorage force. beams.
But it is always Hooke’s Law (σ = Eε), With these new forces acting on the
whether written in red or green, En- beam, we have a new kind of bending • On False Prophets
glish, German or Chinese – or in all moment diagram. In fact, it means that
we get so-called “secondary mo- Beware of people who are trying to
languages. But, it is always the same
ments” in the beam. These secondary sell you new patents or prestressing
thing, and that thing is wrong! We can-
moments are great or small, positive systems. Most of the time these people
not apply Hooke’s Law once the loads
or negative, depending upon the mag- know very little about engineering or
are so high that the beam cracks and
nitude and shape of the stressed ten- prestressing principles. These devices
the materials are in a state of partial
don and the cross section of the beam. are only worth considering after full-
plasticity; Hooke’s Law doesn’t apply
We should emphasize the fact that the scale testing.
any more. And, if one tries to make
theories at that stage of beam loading – term “secondary” is a misnomer be-
well, one finds immediately that it is cause the “secondary moments” can • On Professional Ethics
very difficult, because we do not know be fairly large. If you cannot design a prestressed
the behavior of concrete and steel in concrete structure on a sound and eco-
the range between the cracking point • On Safety Factors nomical basis, don’t build it! Above
and the breaking point. all, be an engineer with a professional
Everyone loves to talk about safety
conscience. Make the structure right!
factors but nothing is more compli-
• On Beam Design cated or confusing. It is meaningless
Designing a beam is a question of to talk about safety factors unless you
[Republished from “Magnel’s Impact
proportion – engineering is not a sci- explain what it is related to for a par- on the Advent of Prestressed Concrete,”
ence – it’s an art. You must have some ticular case. (Does it, for example, re- by Charles C. Zollman, PCI JOURNAL,
experience to draw upon; otherwise, late to cracking, breaking or fatigue V. 23, No. 3, May-June 1978, pp. 32-33,
you’ll never do anything. A man, who strength?) To just say that you have a and from “Commemoration of Magnel’s
studies very thoroughly my book on safety factor of 2, 2.5, 2.7, or 3 has no 100th Birthday Anniversary,”
prestressed concrete, can make per- meaning. That depends more on one’s PCI JOURNAL, V. 35, No. 3, pp. 78-81.]

July-August 2004 17

What It takes to Convert

Prestressed Concrete Into a
Preferred Construction Material
The late Art Anderson, co-founder of Concrete Technology
Corporation and ABAM Engineers, Inc., Tacoma, Washington, was a
visionary and a major pioneer of the precast, prestressed concrete
industry. After obtaining a BS degree in civil engineering from the
University of Washington, he went on to earn a doctorate from the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1949, he performed the
instrumentation of the prototype girder for the Walnut Lane Bridge. He
then became famous for designing and building some of the most
imaginative prestressed concrete structures such as the 21-story
Norton Building, the Disney Monorail and the ARCO floating vessel.
Later, Dr. Anderson served as president of both the ACI and PCI. A
prolific writer, he was the author of numerous technical papers, many
of which appeared in the PCI JOURNAL. In recognition of Anderson’s
enormous contributions to the industry and Institute, PCI awarded him
Arthur R. Anderson the Medal of Honor and Fellow Award. Written about fifty years ago,
many of the ideas presented in this article are still pertinent today.

“They copied all they could new building material is mak- should have more than a structural
follow but they could not
copy my mind so I left them
sweating and swearing
A ing its impact on architecture,
engineering and construction.
Only recently, the prestigious Wall
steel shortage as an incentive for
“jumping in.”
During the past few years, pre-
a year and a half behind.” Street Journal featured a front page stressed concrete has clearly grown
column under the headline “Pre- from a substitute material to a recog-
stressed Concrete Stars as a Substitute nized and indeed preferred construction
Rudyard Kipling
for Scarce Steel Beams.” method for many types of structures.
No one will doubt that the steel To build a successful prestressed
shortage has created a market for pre- concrete business, a potential in-
stressed concrete. However, anyone vestor should have answers to the
giving serious consideration to enter- following questions:
ing the prestressed concrete business 1. What is the potential market?

2. How can this market be devel- tion in a factory. This leads up to A good designer must also develop
oped; and how much of it can I rea- Question 2 above, namely, “How can a sense of balance between material
sonably expect to get? this market be developed?” and labor costs. Granted that the
3. What types of products should the Promoting and selling prestressed American economy attaches a pre-
plant manufacture? concrete is highly technical. It would mium to labor cost as contrasted with
4. What are the technological as- be extremely difficult for a salesman the European practice of trying to save
pects, and what kind of people consti- to make calls on prospective cus- every pound of material; yet I have
tute the successful organization of a tomers, and bring back a book full of seen many examples of prestressed
successful prestressed concrete busi- orders. On the contrary, selling pre- concrete structures in the United
ness? stressed concrete must start at the out- States where a considerable amount of
5. What kind of plant, equipment, set of the design of a new project, i.e., material could have been saved with-
and facilities are required? trying to get a voice at the table out increasing the labor costs.
6. How much land is required for a where the big decisions are made. You may well ask, “Why all the
suitable plant site? Selling of this kind requires a com- fuss about design to sell prestressed
7. How much will it cost? pany representative capable of calling concrete?” The answer to this question
For an investor, Questions 1 and 2 on engineers and architects at the pre- goes back to the opening paragraph in
are the most important to consider. liminary design stage. The sales repre- this article regarding the use of pre-
In the foreseeable future, the market sentative should be qualified to dis- stressed concrete as a substitute mate-
potential for prestressed concrete ap- cuss intelligently the designer’s rial for scarce steel. When steel be-
pears excellent. The multi-billion dol- problems; and above all, he must be comes plentiful again, where will the
lar federal highway program will re- well-armed with cost data. Just as with market be for prestressed concrete?
quire thousands of structures, ideally all types of engineering sales, it is the Obviously, to be competitive with
constructed from prestressed concrete. person best equipped with good tech- steel or other construction materials,
New construction of schools, offices nical answers who has the best chance prestressed concrete must become a
and other public buildings, sports fa- of eventually getting the order for his preferred material of construction, and
cilities and other public buildings will company. this idea must be “sold” to the people
continue at a high rate because of the From my experience, progress in who do the design.
continuing population growth in the factory-produced prestressed concrete It will be up to the manufacturers of
United States. construction will be tremendously in- prestressed concrete to see that the de-
Expansion in the industry goes fluenced by the ability and imagina- signers are sold. To do this:
ahead at top level, to keep pace with tion of designers, namely, the archi- • The company looking for a market
the increasing market for products de- tects and engineers. Fortunate indeed in prestressed concrete must be pre-
manded by a nation whose standard of is the company that has on its staff a pared to develop standard structural
living is constantly rising. Thus, a design consultant with enough cre- sections comparable to the standard
tremendous potential market for basic ative ability and imagination to de- rolled steel sections.
structural elements in prestressed con- velop structures with architectural • Moreover, the company must be in
crete already exists. composition of enduring beauty de- a position to produce these sections to
Assuming that an investor decides rived from the repetition of a few a guaranteed performance, and pro-
to get into the prestressing business, basic standard elements – in this case, vide adequate design information
he should get the best technical advice from precast and prestressed concrete about these standard sections to those
on how to get started. For example, he produced by mass production. who would be in a position to specify
should understand the difference be- Thus, one of the big selling jobs in them.
tween post-tensioning and pretension- the precast, prestressed concrete • The company must be able to offer
ing, know the advantages of both sys- business is really “how to design it.” its products at a competitive price.
tems and how they interact with each It is important to keep the number of • Lastly, and most importantly, the
other. He should determine whether he product types to a minimum and the company must have a knowledgeable
wants to pursue an “on-the-job” or number of each type a maximum, and technical salesman to call upon ar-
factory type of production. Both meth- equally important to consider details chitects and engineers at the prelimi-
ods will have their place in the future of the connections in the field. nary and actual design phases of a
of the American construction industry. A good designer has a feeling for project.
I believe that the high standard of problems of connecting the structural If we vigorously pursue the above, I
living in the United States has resulted elements, and a knowledge of how have no doubt at all that the future of
from mass production of consumer much a crane can lift at a given radius precast, prestressed concrete will be
goods in well-managed factories with and what kind of dimensional toler- very promising indeed.
production-line methods (as was pio- ances to allow in precast concrete ele-
neered by the automobile industry). ments. He understands the forces and [Note: Republished from “An Adventure
For this reason, the future for the long movements caused by temperature in Prestressed Concrete,” by Arthur R.
range success of prestressed concrete changes as well as those caused by de- Anderson, PCI JOURNAL, V. 24, No. 5,
should also be based on mass produc- flection due to design loads. September-October 1979, pp. 90-113.]

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