Tung-Yen Lin, 91; Engineer Advocated a Novel Way to Build

Times Staff Writer

Tung-Yen Lin, a UC Berkeley-trained structural engineer whose influence was felt around the world in his early advocacy of a resilient concrete that revolutionized the design of skyscrapers, freeway overpasses and other structures, has died at 91.

The retired UC Berkeley professor, who ran two international engineering firms and was an authority on bridge design and construction, died Saturday of heart failure at his home in the suburban Bay Area city of El Cerrito.

Lin was renowned in his field for his pioneering role in promoting the use of prestressed concrete, a remarkably strong and economical material that combines compressed concrete with steel tendons and has become a staple of the construction industry worldwide.

His efforts “changed the history of building,” retired UC Berkeley engineering professor Alex C. Scordelis said a few years ago, “making possible today’s high-rises and graceful, long-span structures that can bear heavy loads, withstand earthquakes and hurricanes and cost little to maintain.”


Also an accomplished designer, Lin was responsible for the graceful, 300-foot-long arches that support the ceiling of the exhibit hall in San Francisco’s Moscone Center, the largest underground room in the world when it was built in 1982; the expansive, cantilevered roof of the National Racetrack in Caracas, Venezuela; and innovative bridges in Costa Rica, Libya, Taiwan and the United States.

His vigorous advocacy of prestressed concrete also influenced the California Department of Transportation when it was developing major highways and freeways in the years after World War II.

“The ubiquitous thin, concrete ribbon overpass bridge in California is one of the things his tireless promotion of prestressed concrete made possible,” said Mark Ketchum, a former student of Lin who is a partner in a Northern California firm that specializes in bridge construction.

Lin “has left one of the greatest legacies in structural engineering in the past century. He was an extraordinarily creative engineer,” said Karl S. Pister, a former chancellor of UC Santa Cruz and onetime dean of engineering at UC Berkeley who knew Lin for more than 50 years.


Lin also built a unique home for his family in El Cerrito that has no interior support columns because it is made entirely of prestressed concrete. It includes a 1,000-square-foot ballroom, where Lin and his wife, champion dancer Margaret Lin, spent nearly every weekend waltzing. They donated the house to UC Berkeley in 1988 to endow the T.Y. and Margaret Lin Chair in Engineering.

Known as “T.Y.,” Lin once estimated that he had designed more than 1,000 bridges during a seven-decade career that began in pre-communist China.

He was born in 1912 in Fuzhou, China, the fourth of 11 children. He grew up in Beijing, where he was tutored in the Chinese classics by his grandfather and his father

Lin wanted to study politics, thinking he could help save his country from its perpetual turmoil. His father urged him toward science, however, so Lin enrolled in Tientsin’s Tang Shan College, well known for its civil engineering school.


After graduating in 1931, he entered UC Berkeley, where he earned a master’s degree in engineering in 1933. His thesis offered a novel method of structural analysis called direct moment distribution, later known as the Lin method, which was widely used until computers took over such calculations.

After graduating from UC Berkeley, he returned to China where he became an engineer with the Ministry of Railways in the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. When he was 25, he was named chief bridge engineer for the entire system, overseeing hundreds of projects along perilous mountain routes throughout China.

In 1941, he married Margaret Kao, whose father was a high-ranking justice. Four years later, the couple moved from China to Taiwan, where Lin managed the railroad system.

In 1946 Lin was hired as an assistant professor at UC Berkeley, where he would soon embark on his groundbreaking research.


When Lin heard about prestressed concrete, which had been invented by a Frenchman, he quickly realized it offered great advantages over other types of reinforced concrete -- chiefly strength.

Prestressing involved adding tension to high-grade steel cables before encasing them in compressed concrete. If designed correctly, the new material would bear more pressure and motion than other types of concrete and for only a slightly higher cost.

“I not only knew how to do it, but I [could] explain it such that people will understand it and use it,” he said in an oral history for UC Berkeley in 1999. Lin foresaw what he called “the development of a new frontier.”

But others were skeptical. “There was a lot of prejudice among older engineers that this newfangled stuff wouldn’t work,” Edward Wilson, an emeritus professor of structural engineering and longtime colleague of Lin at UC Berkeley, recalled in an interview this week. “They didn’t know how to design it.”


Lin began to work with the material and write papers about it. Eventually, he was providing technical advice to more than 50 manufacturers around the country. In 1957 he organized the first World Conference on Prestressed Concrete in San Francisco, which attracted 1,200 scientists and manufacturers from the U.S., Europe and Asia.

To apply his knowledge about prestressed concrete, Lin founded the firm T.Y. Lin and Associates in Los Angeles in 1954. By the late 1960s it had become T.Y. Lin International and was shepherding projects around the world using prestressed concrete and other materials.

Lin sold the company in the late 1980s. In 1992, when he was 80, he started the San Francisco-based Lin Tung-Yen China Inc. to focus on engineering projects in his native country.

Lin was perhaps most famous for his bridges, such as the Rio Colorado, an upside-down suspension bridge over a deep gorge in Costa Rica. One of his last projects is a curved bridge with a sculptural, asymmetrical arch now underway in Nanning, China.


But Lin, according to his family and friends, was most proud of the bridges he conceived that were never built.

The most famous of these was the Ruck-a-Chucky Bridge, which was to have traversed the middle fork of the American River near Auburn but never left the drawing board because of the cancellation of a related dam project.

It was a beautifully unconventional, curved bridge that was to have been suspended from cables anchored in the hillsides rather than from towers anchored in the rocky river. Its “hanging arc” design was so striking that it ran on the cover of Popular Mechanics in the 1970s.

The other unfulfilled vision close to Lin’s heart was his idea for a 55-mile-long bridge spanning the Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia. Called the International Peace Bridge, it was conceived in the midst of the Cold War and drew supporters and critics.


His dream still burned brightly some three decades later, in 1986, when Lin was awarded the National Medal of Science for his pioneering work on prestressed concrete. As he received his medal, he handed then-President Ronald Reagan his 16-page proposal that said the bridge was “not an impractical dream” and would increase commerce and tourism.

“It will solve all your budget problems,” he told the president, who took the booklet with him.

In addition to his wife of 62 years, Margaret Lin of El Cerrito, Lin is survived by a son, Paul of Palo Alto; a daughter, Verna Lin-Yee of Oakland; three sisters; two brothers; and five grandchildren.

Memorial donations may be sent to the Berkeley Engineering Fund for the T.Y. Lin Fellowship, College of Engineering, 208 McLaughlin Hall, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-1722.