Born in Parkman, Maine, in 1876, Charles Ellis committed his life to scholarship. But though he received degrees in mathematics and Greek, the man who would undertake the complex design calculations for the Golden Gate Bridge never earned an engineering degree.
A Paying Profession
After college, Ellis quickly discovered that his first academic love, Greek, did not pay. He took a post at the American Bridge Company, where he worked on the stresses of subway tunnels crossing the Hudson River. Ellis completed coursework to extend his knowledge of structural engineering. By 1922 he would be expert enough to author a benchmark textbook in the field, Essentials in the Theory of Framed Structures.
Ellis eventually chose to teach, joining engineering faculties at the University of Michigan and then the University of Illinois. In 1922, Joseph Strauss found in Ellis the engineering expert he needed for his dream of a bridge across the Golden Gate. Unlike Strauss, Ellis had no inclination to seek fame. The pair was quite odd -- the sly businessman and the professor who lived by the credo, "happiness cannot be found by merely seeking it. It is far more satisfactory than mere pleasure."
Visionary Technical Team
Trying to sell his vision of the bridge, Strauss mentioned Ellis' credentials as often as he could in business meetings and proposals, often prefixing Ellis' name with "Doctor" or "Professor." Ellis was too immersed in his duties to pay much attention. He was spending months working out the practical details of a suspension bridge design dreamed up by bridge designer Leon Moissieff. The two visionaries worked in tandem to master all of the equations necessary to calculate forces at the Golden Gate, though they were separated by hundreds of miles. Telegrams flew between Ellis in Chicago and Moissieff in New York, aggravating Strauss, who did not understand the complexity of the engineering work. He soon accused Ellis of wasting time and money.
In November 1931, after several legal and technical delays, Strauss ordered Ellis to take a vacation and to turn his work over to a subordinate. Though Ellis, immersed in countless details and worried about aspects of the bridge's design, wished to continue working on the bridge's towers, he did as he was told. Towards the end of his vacation, Ellis received a letter from Strauss telling him not to come back.
Though his relationship with Strauss had always been somewhat strained, Ellis was shocked. He had poured his entire being into the bridge for three years; the challenges had consumed him. Harsher realities soon set in. Even an accomplished engineer such as Ellis had trouble finding steady work during the Great Depression. His book was still a mandatory text for Harvard and Yale engineers, but a hiring freeze left no room for exceptions.
Forced into semi-retirement, Ellis revisited the computations for the Golden Gate Bridge. He labored over the numbers obsessively. Investing about 70 hours per week, he executed a complete review of the numbers in five months, working unpaid. Ellis discovered problems that alarmed him and he lobbied the project's current engineers to pay heed. Moisseiff, still a player in Strauss' regime, reviewed Ellis' letters but concluded the fears were misplaced.
Ellis eventually found a teaching job at Purdue University in 1934. He was considered a fine teacher and was well-liked by his students. Unfortunately for him, his connection with his primary obsession for so many years had been severed. When the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, many men were credited with "building" it, among them Strauss, Moisseiff and Clifford Paine, Ellis' successor on the project. Yet Ellis was not mentioned.
Not until 1949, when an obituary named him as the bridge's designer, did Ellis receive any recognition for his enormous role in the design and engineering of the bridge. Whether he ever saw or stood on the bridge is not known. But in all the years Ellis spent laboring over the numbers — in ten volumes of calculated dimensions, loads, wind stresses, and the like — he had made the bridge his own.