Hidden Collections Grant Helps Reveal a Rich Chapter in Engineering History

Whenever we cross a bridge suspended over a body of water or ascend in an elevator to the upper reaches of a city’s skyline, we depend on strangers who design and construct things we would never attempt to build ourselves. But before undertaking such construction projects, those same strangers often turn to Lehigh University. Here, in a single building on Packer Avenue, many of the materials used to build the modern world were first put to the test.

Beginning in 1910, the Fritz Engineering Laboratory built an international reputation for its ability to destroy just about anything people sent it; it made the world safer by determining when, where, and how material failure was likely to occur. Now, thanks to a CLIR/Hidden Collections grant, the vital history of Fritz Lab can be seen as well as told.

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Perhaps most importantly, the collection preserves images of

the men who conducted crucial tests in Fritz Lab.   

The Fritz Laboratory Photographs Collection contains more than six thousand photographs and negatives depicting some of the essential tests performed during the lab’s heyday. The collection, long forgotten in a set of locked file cabinets, now reveals a great deal about the daily activities of a building the American Society of Civil Engineers designated a Civil Engineering Landmark in 1991.

When you enter the south bay of Fritz Lab today, nearly sixty years after this large addition was added to the original facility, your eyes are immediately drawn upward. Looming there in the open seven-storey space is the more than forty foot tall Baldwin Universal Testing Machine (UTM).

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This 1957 image shows the Baldwin UTM’s height came in handy. Fritz Lab tested sections of transmission towers measuring up to thirty-eight feet in height.

The Baldwin UTM simulates the tremendous forces exerted on bridges, buildings, and countless other steel and concrete structures. But this impressive machine doesn’t merely approximate the strains caused by hurricanes or heavy loads, it greatly exceeds them until a seemingly invincible material cracks, bends, or otherwise yields. Determining the thresholds of various materials is Fritz Lab’s claim to fame and the Baldwin UTM’s ability to exert up to 5,000,000 pounds of pressure makes it the biggest, most powerful tool in the lab’s arsenal.  

 The collection also depicts many groups of curious visitors who witnessed the lab’s wonders, proving that Dorney Park wasn’t the only place in the Lehigh Valley to experience a ground-shaking thrill. Local women’s groups, Boy Scout troops, high school students, and professional organizations, like the American Society of Civil Engineers, gathered annually to experience the power of the great Baldwin UTM, a machine that literally shakes the earth beneath Lehigh’s Asa Campus.

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A speaker addresses attendees of the 1955 American Society of Civil Engineers annual meeting. The Baldwin UTM provides an imposing backdrop.

Many twentieth century structures were built from materials tested at Fritz Lab. Testing done for Bethlehem Steel alone aided in construction of the Walt Whitman, George Washington, Golden Gate, and Verrazano-Narrows bridges. After more than a century of operation, and nearly sixty years since the addition of the Baldwin UTM, companies from around the world continue to send structural material to Fritz Lab.

So the next time you safely cross a bridge or ride a roller coaster remember that you have Fritz Lab to thank for it.

By Ronald McColl

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