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The Life of John A. Blume


"Stanford civil engineers for many decades have been creating things of great benefit to the peoples of the world. Many of these creations were without precedent, and many were done without public awareness, and without public recognition. But the main reward was still there - the self-satisfaction of creating and building things useful to others."

John A. Blume, Department of Civil Engineering Commencement Speech, 1979



John A. Blume was born on April 8, 1909, in the little town of Gonzales, a few miles from Salinas, California. Earthquakes played an early role in his life as both sets of grandparents had survived the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire almost exactly three years before his birth, and he grew up hearing their stories. His father, Charles A. Blume, a builder, participated in the reconstruction of San Francisco, including the Palace Hotel, which featured prominently in his son's life.
As a young man, Dr. Blume worked for his father as a steel erector and rigger. He also worked as a laborer, carpenter, truck driver, and in canneries, to pay for his education. While driving a long-distance van, Dr. Blume witnessed the destruction of Santa Barbara in 1925 by a 6.3 earthquake and helped with the rescue work. Thirteen people died in that quake, and though most of the houses survived, a majority of the commercial buildings, including hotels, were severely damaged or destroyed and the Sheffield Dam collapsed sending a river of water through part of the city. This culmination of direct and indirect links to two major California earthquakes and his own building experience influenced the future direction of Dr. Blume's life, "I made a vow, then and there, that someday I would do something about it."


Dr. Blume arrived at Stanford University in January of 1929 to study engineering. He created his own study plan, a mix of courses in geology, architecture and mathematics. In those days, text books referred to buildings as "static", a notion the Dr. Blume rejected. He received his A.B. degree with distinction in 1933, then continued his studies toward a Degree of Engineer. Dr. Blume studied under Professor Lydik S. Jacobsen who had designed and built the world's first multi-story dynamic building model for shaking table experiments. In 1934, Dr. Blume constructed the second and most exotic multi-story dynamic building model. It was built to simulate the motion of the existing multi-story Alexander Building in San Francisco. This 15-story building model was of a "lumped mass and spring type" and was constructed to have five degrees of freedom per story. It 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 The John A. Blume Earthquake Engineering Center. Dr. Blume's thesis was on the dynamic response of buildings and in January of 1935, he received his Degree of Engineer.
During his college career, Dr. Blume supported himself with many part-time jobs. Having a wonderful musical talent, he was second tenor in a quartet that used to sing with dance bands in the Rose Room of the Palace Hotel. He also played the guitar and banjo. His sense of humor was legendary, as was his sports car escapades. While he was in college, he once drove from Stanford to Lake Tahoe in four hours, evading the law the entire way; an amazing feat in the 1930's.


Dr. Blume's first engineering job, while he was still an undergraduate student, was with the Seismological Division of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (forerunner of the U.S.G.S.). In 1935 and 1936 he worked as a construction engineer on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Later he worked for the Standard Oil Company of California and the structural engineering design firm of H.J. Brunnier.
In 1945, Dr. Blume established John A. Blume and Associates (JAB), which soon became the preeminent consulting firm in structural and earthquake engineering. In 1970, his firm merged with the URS Corporation, forming URS/John A. Blume and Associates (now URS/Greiner). JAB designed or analyzed scores of special earthquake projects, among them the two-mile long Stanford Linear Accelerator, the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco, the restoration of the California State Capitol, and the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. Other projects included the first man-made offshore island for oil production (near Ventura, California), the supersonic wind tunnel at Moffet Field, earthquake research on school buildings for the California Division of Architecture, over 40 nuclear power plants in the United States and six other countries, deep-water harbors, and research on structural response to underground nuclear explosions and sonic booms.
In 1949, Dr. Blume helped found the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI). He is also a Honorary Member of the New York Academy of Sciences, Structural Engineers Association of Northern California (SEAONC), EERI, ASCE, American Concrete Institute, and the International Association of Earthquake Engineering. Over 150 paper, articles and books have been published by Dr. Blume, a remarkable number for a person in private practice.


"After thirty years as a dropout", Dr. Blume returned to Stanford University in 1964, at the age of 55, to study for his Ph.D. He had decided that he needed to update himself in modern areas such as matrix and computer analysis of structures, statistical methods, stochastic processes, and decision-making in civil engineering. Even though he headed a large and busy consulting firm, he pursued his studies diligently, taking course work for an entire academic year. He began work on his Ph.D. dissertation, "Dynamic Behavior of Multi-Story Buildings with Various Stiffness Characteristics," under the direction of Professor Donovan H. Young. He asked for no special treatment during this time and worked in the same manner as any other student, including all-night hours at the computation center. On January 6, 1967, exactly thirty-four years to the day after receiving the A.B. degree, he was awarded the Ph.D. degree.


Dr. Blume's dedication to education and research has led him to provide fellowships that have supported many graduate students in structural engineering at Stanford. He also urged Stanford to develop an "earthquake center", a concept that was realized in 1974. "I am very proud to have this earthquake center named after me," he said in the EERI Oral History Series. "I like to think that their choice of name was due more to my work in the subject than to any fiscal support."
He has also endowed a chair, the John A. Blume Professorship, funded by income from two other gifts that Stanford was to pay to him for life but which he decided to give back to the University. The first recipient of the chair was Professor Haresh Shah, also a co-founder (with Professor James Gere) of the Blume Center. Its current recipient is Professor Helmut Krawinkler, the former co-director of the Blume Center. 


Through his publications, lectures, consulting, and devoted public service, Dr. Blume has exerted tremendous influence on the development of modern earthquake engineering practices. He has made singular contributions to our understanding of structural dynamics, earthquake effects on buildings, and strong ground motions, and he has had a major influence on the development of seismic design procedures and building code provisions. The level of maturity in designing buildings that can be made earthquake resistant, (not earthquake-proof "don't say 'proof' unless you're talking about whiskey", Dr. Blume once told a newspaper reporter), resulting in an increase in occupant safety is due to many years of dedicated work by a few pioneering researchers and engineers, among whom John Blume is a major figure.
John Blume passed away at his home on March 1, 2002 at the age of 92. Until his death, Dr. Blume retained an active interest in seismological matters and earthquake engineering. He is truly worthy of the title of "the Father of Earthquake Engineering".
Sources include Professor James Gere, Professor Haresh Shah, and the San Francisco Chronicle and EERI Oral History Series.