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John A. Blume and Provost William E. Miller at the opening of the Blume Center 1976

The History of Earthquake Engineering at Stanford University and the Founding of the Blume Center

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The Blume Center was founded in 1975 by a generous endowment from John A. Blume.  The building was officially opened on September 17, 1976.

Center Directors

Haresh C. Shah
James M. Gere

James M. Gere
Helmut Krawinkler

Helmut Krawinkler
Anne S. Kiremidjian

Anne S. Kiremidjian

Gregory G. Deierlein

The destruction caused by the 1906 earthquake marked the beginning of a long and rich history of research and innovation in engineering, seismology, and geology at Stanford.

Earthquake damage Stanford

Most of the Stanford campus buildings were constructed of unreinforced masonry and were concentrated within a central quadrangle. Several buildings on campus were destroyed or severely damaged during the quake, including the newly built gymnasium, the library and museum, and Memorial Church. Colored mosaic tiles from the Memorial Church were later found several hundred meters from the collapsed structure.

The earthquake sparked interest in research and experimental work, including Professor William Rogers’ development of the first instrument to experimentally investigate soil effects during earthquakes. However, interest in earthquake risks was often short-lived and poorly-funded, so subsequent earthquakes throughout the world continued to result in great loss of life due to buildings designed with inadequate seismic resistance. Nevertheless, research at Stanford, particularly through the 1930s, laid the groundwork for modern analytical and design approaches. Significant early research was the work of Professor Bailey Willis following the 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake, the same earthquake that inspired a young John Blume to enter the field. Blume’s extraordinary career included contributions to dynamic theory, soil structure interactions, and the inelastic behavior of structures, earning him the title of the “Father of Earthquake Engineering.” In conjunction with the advent of computer modeling and measurement tools, the 1971 San Fernando and the 1972 Managua earthquakes stimulated sustained interest in earthquakes and contributed to the founding of the John A. Blume Center for Earthquake Engineering at Stanford in 1974

Early Research

The 1906 earthquake intrigued scholars at Stanford. In that year, Assistant Professor of Physics, F. J. Rogers, used a shaking table for experiments on the dynamic response of soil to ground motion. At the request of Vice President Branner, Rogers’ report, “Experiments with a Shaking> Machine,” was “undertaken with the hope of offering some explanation, based directly on experiment, of the greater destructiveness of earthquakes in regions where the foundations of structures are supported by more or less soft ground than where these foundations are based on solid rock.” The Stanford Department of Mechanical Engineering constructed the table, and 74 tests were made in all with table frequency, amplitude, and moisture content of the sand as the principal parameters. The testing found that moderately dry sand moved with the motion of the shake table at frequencies less than 2.5 cycles per second but wet sand had much more motion than the table. In concluding the report, Rogers stated, “To those interested in seismology the important question is: How do these experiments help to explain the greater destructiveness of earthquakes in regions where foundations are in alluvial soil than where foundations rest directly upon rocky strate? To pass from experiments upon a box containing half a ton of soil to the destructive effects of an earthquake is certainly a great leap. […] However, it seems to me beyond question that a soft, semi-fluid mass of soil, containing a large amount of water and surrounded or partially surrounded by soil strata, will not oscillate with the same motion as the surrounding strata. […] Finally, the greater relative motion of such a soft or semi-fluid mass is not prevented by overlaying strata of drier and more compact material.”

Shaking Table

The 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake spurred renewed interest, which was when Dr. Bailey Willis asked that a vibration laboratory be built and that a shaking table be an integral part of it. Dr. Lydik S. Jacobsen designed the table, which was constructed using gift funds. The 10x12 foot shaking table was made of 8-inch steel H-beams bolted and welded together. Weighing about 6000 pounds, it was carried on specially-ground streetcar wheels mounted on ball bearings and ran on two railroad rails. The dynamic characteristics of the table, the pendulum-table system, and the forced vibration were all developed in detail together with the complete theory. There were many possible adjustments to create a wide variety of disturbances, frequencies, and accelerations. Recording devices varied with the model being tested. In non-destructible dynamic building models with exaggerated story distortions, moving pictures were taken of the whole model which had levered dials showing the relative distortion of adjacent stories. The absolute distortion relative to “ground” was also recorded. Professor Lydik S. Jacobsen became famous for designing and building the world’s first multi-story dynamic building model for shaking table experiments, and he directed many important experiments connected with the shaking table in the following years. Before the Blume Center was established, many additional experiments were conducted in the Stanford vibration laboratory by Harry A. Williams, Ayre, and Jacobsen.

The first field instrument for strong shaking of structures

In 1929, when John A. Blume arrived at Stanford to study engineering, textbooks referred to buildings as "static", a  notion Blume rejected.  In 1934 Professor Lydik Jacobsen and his student, John Blume, developed the first field instrument for strong shaking of structures and investigated the performance of several buildings. They constructed the second and most exotic multi-story dynamic building model of its time. This 15-story model of a “lumped mass and spring type” could be tested over and over again without damage and its local characteristics could be altered for parameter studies. The Alexander Model is still on display in the lobby of Blume Center. The thesis that Blume co-authored, “The Reconciliation of the Computed and Observed Periods of Vibration of a Fifteen-Story Building,” was a pioneering analysis of the dynamic response of high-rise buildings. As his later employee, Stanley Scott, explained, “Blume was convinced that in order for buildings to withstand severe earthquake loading, both elastic and inelastic ranges of motion had to be understood and considered in design. This was a revolutionary theory that Blume would continue to refine and push for inclusion in building codes and engineering design practice for the next fifty years.” During the 1940s an impact table for simulating earthquake ground motions was used to study the mechanical performance of large shear walls, masonry structures, frames and other structural elements. These experiments were important for understanding building vibrations and the implications of dynamic performance on static design.

Founding of the Blume Earthquake Engineering Center

Dr. John A. Blume

In order to encourage the advancement of earthquake engineering research and education at Stanford, Dr. John A. Blume proposed the formation of the Earthquake Engineering Center that bears his name. Since its founding in 1974, the Blume Center has functioned as the umbrella for all earthquake engineering activities at Stanford University. The Blume Center has published more than one hundred technical reports and has organized major conferences, such as the Second US National Conference on Earthquake Engineering and the Fourth International Conference on Seismic Zonation. Researchers at the Blume Center have done pioneering work in many aspects of earthquake engineering, including seismic hazard and risk analysis, earthquake occurrence and ground motion modeling, component and system reliability, experimental research on small-scale models of structures and components, evaluation of damage potential of ground motions, and development of seismic design methodologies.

Seismic Strengthening Following the 1989 Earthquake

Building 02-540 is home to the John A. Blume Earthquake Engineering Center. Built in 1912, the building was originally an industrial engineering shop and aerodynamics lab. It was constructed of lightly reinforced concrete piers and tie beams and unreinforced masonry infill with heavy wood timber trusses.

Though inhabitable, the building was heavily damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Since the historic building is considered to be an important part of the University heritage, every effort was made to preserve its original exterior appearance as well as all original construction material. The seismic strengthening of the Blume Center building began in 1994 and targeted four primary goals identified by the University and required by Santa Clara County:

  1. improve the building to provide higher seismic strength,
  2. enhance the building for disabled access,
  3. update the fire suppression and detection system, and
  4. upgrade the building’s telecommunications system.

Similar upgrades have been completed for other historic buildings along the Panama Mall corridor.

The seismic strengthening of the Blume Center

The renovation of the Blume Center building is an architectural and structural engineering success story. The building maintains its historical appeal and architectural significance while completely restoring the structural integrity to meet current code requirements for earthquake load capacity. The programmatic enhancements to the building include new testing facilities, improved teaching labs, and office space for the research students. The new advanced technology laboratory is utilized for the development of innovative structural seismic sensors, and the labs are kept constantly busy with research and testing of new ways to make buildings safer during and after catastrophic events.

The Blume Center Today

The Blume Center currently provides office space for over 60 graduate students, visiting scholars and professors, consulting faculty, as well as the NPDP (National Performance of Dams Program) and SURI (Stanford Urban Resilience Initiative). Our students research all aspects of structural and geomechnical engineering, as well as sustainability. The Blume Earthquake Engineering Center's mission is to continue to work to preserve the past and prepare for a seismically stable and sustainable future.