Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month: T.Y. Lin

Chinese-American structural engineer Tung-Yen Lin left a formidable legacy when it came to transportation projects across the globe. “He was an extraordinarily creative engineer,” said Karl S. Pister, a former dean of engineering at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, who knew Lin for more than a half-century.

Lin was born in 1912 in the city of Fuzhou on the southeast coast of China. When he was only 14, Lin entered Jiaotong University’s Tanshan Engineering College (present-day Southwest Jiaotong University). After graduating from there in 1931 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, Lin went to the United States to study at UC, Berkeley. He earned his master’s degree in civil engineering in 1933.

Lin subsequently returned to China to work for the Chinese Ministry of Railways. His high-quality work soon led to his being appointed chief bridge engineer of the Yunnan-Chongqing Railway. In 1946, Lin returned to UC, Berkeley, to join its faculty. It was during this period that Lin established his pioneering role in the standardized use of prestressed concrete in construction. While he did not invent prestressed concrete, Lin realized the potential widespread applications of the material (combining compressed concrete with steel tendons) in the creation of even stronger and more durable infrastructure and helped make this material a regular part of the construction industry across the globe.

Lin performed extensive research on prestressed concrete and routinely provided technical advice on its use to over 50 manufacturers throughout the United States. In 1954, he founded the firm infrastructure services firm T.Y. Lin and Associates (eventually renamed T.Y. Lin International) to shepherd construction projects using prestressed concrete and other innovative materials.

Lin’s staunch advocacy of prestressed concrete proved instrumental in convincing the California Division of Highways (now the California Department of Transportation) to use the material when it was building major highways throughout the state during the post-World War II era. Lin once estimated that, during his long career, he helped design more than 1,000 bridges worldwide. One notable example of his work is the Rio Colorado, an upside-down suspension bridge spanning a deep gorge in Costa Rica.

In 1986, Lin was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Ronald Reagan. Lin also received a lifetime achievement in design award from ASCE. He died in 2003 in El Cerrito, California, at the age of 91.

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