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T.Y. Lin, world renowned structural engineer, dies at age 91

– Tung-Yen (T.Y.) Lin, a professor emeritus in civil engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and a visionary whose pioneering work in prestressed concrete had a profound influence on modern structural design, has died. He was 91.

T.Y. Lin died Saturday, Nov. 15, at his El Cerrito home after a fall resulting from a mild heart attack. He had remained active throughout his life, having met with former students and worked at his San Francisco office the week before his death.

 T.Y. Lin
T.Y. Lin
"Lin's legacy is international," said Karl Pister, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering and dean emeritus of the College of Engineering. "Almost every continent you go to there will be structures with T.Y. Lin's mark on them. He was a one-of-a-kind person of incredible creative vision in structural design," said Pister, whose collaborations with Lin on engineering materials date back to the 1950s.

Considered one of the greatest structural engineers of his time, Lin earned a reputation for combining elegance and strength in his designs. Evidence of Lin's work can be seen worldwide, from San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center to the Kuan Du Bridge in Taiwan to the roof of the National Racetrack in Caracas, Venezuela. The Moscone Center's 22,000-square-foot Exhibition Hall was the world's largest underground room at the time it was constructed in 1982.

"There was no way to be around T.Y. and not respond to his remarkable energy, enthusiasm and clarity of mind," said Alex Scordelis, professor emeritus of structural engineering at UC Berkeley and a colleague of Lin's for more than 50 years. "It's what made him a great engineer, a great colleague and one of Berkeley's great teachers."

Born in Fuzhou, China, on Nov. 14, 1912, Lin was the fourth of 11 children. He was raised in Beijing, where his father moved the family when he joined China's Supreme Court.

Educated at home until he was 11, Lin did not begin formal schooling until junior high school. Lin was too young at the time to enroll, but his parents said he was born in 1911 instead of 1912, a fib that to this day is reflected in some of Lin's personnel records.

Despite a semi-rough transition into the school system - Lin flunked out of history the first year - he recovered quickly and discovered a strong aptitude for calculations. Three years later, when he was only 14, he passed the college entrance exams, earning the top score in math and the second best score overall in his entering class at Jiaotong University's Tangshan Engineering College, which he entered in 1926.

In 1931, at the age of 19, Lin earned his bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the college. He then left for the United States and began his graduate studies at UC Berkeley. Early in his career, Lin gained recognition in his field with his master's thesis on direct moment distribution. The innovative paper advanced structural analysis and was the first student thesis published by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

After receiving his UC Berkeley master's degree in civil engineering in 1933, Lin returned to China to work with the Chinese Ministry of Railways. He quickly moved up the ranks, becoming chief bridge engineer of the Yunnan-Chongqing Railway four years later at the age of 25. In his position, Lin oversaw the survey, design and construction of more than 1,000 bridges throughout China's mountainous regions.

In 1941, Lin married Margaret Kao, whose father was also a Supreme Court justice in China. Five years later, while Lin was working in Taiwan to help in the transition from Japanese to Chinese rule after the end of World War II, he accepted an invitation to join UC Berkeley's faculty.

It was here that Lin began his groundbreaking research in prestressed concrete, dramatically simplifying the design process for using the material, which combines the tensile strength of steel wires with the compressive strength of concrete. Colleagues said the research on prestressed concrete spearheaded by Lin was key to popularizing the material, which was relatively unknown in the United States at the time.

Lin believed so strongly in the material that he helped assemble in San Francisco in the summer of 1957 the first World Conference on Prestressed Concrete, which was attended by 1,200 engineers, scientists and manufacturers.

"The results of this international gathering, coupled with T.Y.'s pioneering work to perfect the use of prestressed concrete, changed the history of building, making possible today's high-rises and graceful long-span structures that can bear heavy loads, withstand earthquakes and hurricanes and cost little to maintain," said Scordelis, Lin's former colleague, in an introduction to an oral history interview of Lin prepared by the Regional Oral History Office at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library.

It was in the midst of the Cold War that Lin developed one of his boldest ideas: Connecting Alaska to Siberia with a bridge across the Bering Strait. He called the proposed structure the "Intercontinental Peace Bridge" because he saw the span as a critical link that could foster better relations between the United States and Russia. For Lin, bridges had become the tangible symbol of his desire to not only connect two bodies of land, but to span cultures and politics.

"Psychologically, this bridge will demonstrate that human energy and technical capabilities can be devoted to constructive rather than destructive measures to the benefit of all mankind," wrote Lin in a statement describing the project's mission.

Lin's dream made its way to the White House when, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan presented Lin with the prestigious National Medal of Science, the country's highest scientific honor. Lin took the opportunity to hand the president a 16-page booklet outlining plans for the 50-mile span and give him a quick pitch on the bridge's merits, a move that made news around the world. The proposed bridge, which drew both raves and criticism, still remains on paper.

"He was far ahead of his time," said Ben C. Gerwick Jr., a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of civil engineering who, like Lin, was an early advocate of prestressed concrete. "He always wanted what he was doing in the technical and structural field to carry over to society in a broader way. His enthusiasm inspired creativity in engineers throughout the world."

Lin proposed other daring projects such as a 9-mile bridge connecting Spain and Morocco across the Strait of Gibraltar. If built, the span would have become the world's longest suspension bridge.

In the Bay Area, Lin's expertise influenced the design of the San Mateo Bridge, as well as the Interstate 80 bridge in Berkeley for pedestrians and bicyclists designed by OPAC Consulting Engineers. He worked with Mark Ketchum, vice president of the firm and a UC Berkeley graduate. Ketchum was one of Lin's former teaching assistants and a longtime professional colleague.

Lin was also a member of the California Department of Transportation advisory panel on the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge. As a member, Lin criticized the single tower suspension design that slated for construction.

In 1954, Lin founded the firm T.Y. Lin and Associates to help move prestressed concrete from the realm of research into real-world applications. The firm's name changed to T.Y. Lin International by the late 1960s to reflect the company's growth and worldwide presence.

During Lin's tenure at UC Berkeley, he served as chair of the Division of Structural Engineering and Structural Mechanics and as director of the Structural Engineering Laboratory from 1960 to 1963. He was appointed campus-wide Professor of Arts and Science for the 1968-69 academic year to advance interdisciplinary teaching. And from 1969-70, during a turbulent time on campus, Lin chaired UC Berkeley's Board of Educational Development.

He retired from UC Berkeley in 1976 to lead T.Y. Lin International full-time. He left the firm in 1992, five years after it had been sold and went on to form San Francisco-based Lin Tung-Yen China, Inc., which focuses on various engineering projects in China. Lin's son-in-law, Robert Yee, is president of that company.

Lin took particular pride in the role he played in influencing the redevelopment of Pudong, an island off the coast of Shanghai that had been full of old factories and farmland, said Yee. Taking a cue from capitalism, Lin suggested that land be leased in Pudong to pay for bridges linking the island to Shanghai. The idea of building bridges to Pudong and redeveloping the region eventually won favor with city and national officials, including former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who was mayor of Shanghai when Lin worked with him. The plan was approved in 1989 by Deng Xiaoping, the senior leader of China at the time. There are now 10 bridges or tunnels between Shanghai and Pudong, and six more are being planned.

One of the last projects Lin worked on was the Nanning Bridge in Nanning, China. Working with Ketchum at OPAC, Lin helped design a unique asymmetrical arched bridge on a curve. Expected to be completed by the end of 2004, the span will be the only one of its kind.

In addition to the National Medal of Science, Lin received numerous honors throughout his career, including a Fulbright Award for study in Belgium in 1953 and election to the National Academy of Engineering in 1967. He was the first recipient of the American Society of Civil Engineers' Outstanding Lifetime Achievement in Design award. The society renamed its annual Prestressed Concrete Award the T.Y. Lin Award. In 1976, Lin received the Berkeley Citation, one of the campus's most distinguished honors, and in 1994, was named UC Berkeley's California Alumnus of the Year.

Lin also contributed more than 100 technical and research papers and co-authored three widely used textbooks in structural engineering.

In 1988, Lin donated the El Cerrito home he designed and lived in to UC Berkeley to endow the T.Y. and Margaret Lin Chair in Engineering and a dean's discretionary fund at the College of Engineering. At the time it was built, it was the only residential home made of prestressed concrete. As Lin and his wife were avid ballroom dancers, the home also includes a 1,000-square-foot dance floor.

Lin is survived by his wife of 62 years, Margaret of El Cerrito; his son, Paul Lin of Palo Alto; his daughter, Verna Lin-Yee of Oakland; his younger sisters, Nancy Li of Massachusetts, Amy Shen of Virginia, Sylvia Chen of New York, and Anna Hu of San Jose; his younger brothers, Tung-Qi
Lin of Massachusetts and Tung-Kuan Lin of Torrance, Calif.; and five grandchildren.

A private service will be held Thursday, Nov. 20. A public memorial service on campus is being planned.

Donations can be made to the Berkeley Engineering Fund for the T.Y. Lin Fellowship, College of Engineering, 208 McLaughlin Hall, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-1722.

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