Wöhler, August

SUBJECT AREA: Metallurgy
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b. 22 June 1819 Soltau, Germany
d. 21 June 1914 Hannover, Germany
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German railway engineer who first established the fatigue fracture of metals.
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Wöhler, the son of a schoolteacher, was born at Soltau on the Luneburg Heath and received his early education at his father's school, where his mathematical abilities soon became apparent. He completed his studies at the Technical High School, Hannover.
In 1840 he obtained a position at the Borsig Engineering Works in Berlin and acquired there much valuable experience in railway technology. He trained as an engine driver in Belgium and in 1843 was appointed as an engineer to the first Hannoverian Railway, then being constructed between Hannover and Lehrte. In 1847 he became Chief Superintendent of rolling stock on the Lower Silesian-Brandenhurg Railway, where his technical abilities influenced the Prussian Minister of Commerce to appoint him to a commission set up to investigate the reasons for the unusually high incidence of axle failures then being encountered on the railways. This was in 1852, and by 1854, when the Brandenburg line had been nationalized, Wöhler had already embarked on the long, systematic programme of mechanical testing which eventually provided him with a clear insight into the process of what is now referred to as "fatigue failure". He concentrated initially on the behaviour of machined iron and steel specimens subjected to fluctuating direct, bending and torsional stresses that were imposed by testing machines of his own design.
Although Wöhler was not the first investigator in this area, he was the first to recognize the state of "fatigue" induced in metals by the repeated application of cycles of stress at levels well below those that would cause immediate failure. His method of plotting the fatigue stress amplitude "S" against the number of stress cycles necessary to cause failure "N" yielded the well-known S-N curve which described very precisely the susceptibility to fatigue failure of the material concerned. Engineers were thus provided with an invaluable testing technique that is still widely used in the 1990s.
Between 1851 and 1898 Wöhler published forty-two papers in German technical journals, although the importance of his work was not initially fully appreciated in other countries. A display of some of his fracture fatigue specimens at the Paris Exposition in 1867, however, stimulated a short review of his work in Engineering in London. Four years later, in 1871, Engineering published a series of nine articles which described Wöhler's findings in considerable detail and brought them to the attention of engineers. Wöhler became a member of the newly created management board of the Imperial German Railways in 1874, an appointment that he retained until 1889. He is also remembered for his derivation in 1855 of a formula for calculating the deflections under load of lattice girders, plate girders, and other continuous beams resting on more than two supports. This "Three Moments" theorem appeared two years before Clapeyron independently advanced the same expression. Wöhler's other major contribution to bridge design was to use rollers at one end to allow for thermal expansion and contraction.
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Bibliography
1855, "Theorie rechteckiger eiserner Brückenbalken", Zeitschrift für Bauwesen 5:122–66. 1870, "Über die Festigkeitversuche mit Eisen und Stahl", Zeitschrift für Bauwesen 20:73– 106.
Wöhler's experiments on the fatigue of metals were reported in Engineering (1867) 2:160; (1871) 11:199–200, 222, 243–4, 261, 299–300, 326–7, 349–50, 397, 439–41.
Further Reading
R.Blaum, 1918, "August Wöhler", Beiträge zur Geschichte der Technik und Industrie 8:35–55.
——1925, "August Wöhler", Deutsches biographisches Jahrbuch, Vol. I, Stuttgart, pp. 103–7.
K.Pearson, 1890, "On Wöhler's experiments on alternating stress", Messeng. Math.
20:21–37.
J.Gilchrist, 1900, "On Wöhler's Laws", Engineer 90:203–4.
ASD

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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