Background and influences
Robert Maillart was born on 6th February 1872 in Berne, in the predominantly German-speaking part of Switzerland. However, his father's family had originated in Belgium — his great grandfather Philippe Joseph Maillart (1764-1856) lived in Ixelles, south of Brussels, and served as a judge in Vilvoorde, north east of the city. Interestingly, Philippe also engraved portraits, painted landscapes, made maps and produced a series of religious costumes.
The move to Switzerland came with the next generation. In 1833, Philippe's son, Maillart's grandfather, Hektor Theodor Maillart (b.1803) married Petronella Hubertine Schirmer (b.1814) from Boxmeer in the Netherlands. They went to live in Carouge near Geneva, and Hektor became a Swiss citizen in 1858. They had two children, the elder of which was Edmond (1834-74), Maillart's father.
Edmond had studied theology as a young man but made his career in banking. On 21st May 1864, he married Emilie Bertha Küpfer (usually known as Bertha, 1842-1932), the daughter of a prominent German-Swiss family of Berne. Robert Maillart was the fifth of their six children — Rosa (1865-1950), Paul (1866-1936), Marguerite (1867-73) who died aged 5, Alfred (1869-1941), Robert (1872-1940) and Karl Maximilian (Max, 1873-1942).
At home, Maillart's mother spoke German, which was also Maillart's first choice. His father usually spoke French. The family followed the strict branch of the Protestant faith known as Calvinism, of which Berne was a major centre in Switzerland.
On 24th April 1874, at the age of 40 years, Maillart's father Edmond died suddenly leaving his widow and five small children penniless. They had to rely on financial help from Bertha's aunt.
When he was 13 years old (1885), Maillart began four years of schooling at the Berne Gymnasium. He excelled at mathematics, geometry and drawing, and had a keen interest in playing chess. A year later, he became a Swiss citizen.
In 1889, he passed the state examinations with an average grade of 80 percent, qualifying for the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH, Federal Institute of Technology, est.1855) in Zürich. As Maillart was then 17 years old, and the ETH's legal entrance age was 18, he couldn't start right away. Instead, he went to the municipal watch-making school in Geneva, where he showed an early bent for analytical design, attaining full marks for design and mechanics.
In October 1890, Maillart enrolled at ETH to study civil engineering. At the institute he was exposed to the work of its pioneering teachers and former lecturers, particularly the theories of German engineer Carl Culmann (1821-81) and Swiss engineer (Karl) Wilhelm Ritter (1847-1906).
Culmann had begun his career at age 20, building bridges for the Bavarian state railway after learning graphical analysis methods at Metz in France and gaining an engineering diploma at Karlsruhe in Germany. He had also spent two years (1849 and 1850) in America and Britain studying existing railways and rail bridges.
In 1855, Culmann had joined ETH and established the method of analysis he named graphic statics (book published 1866), using analytical diagrams rather than algebraic formulae to describe structural behaviour. First-hand experience of observing structures informed the geometry of his drawings, giving a visual three-dimensional element to his method that was a complete contrast with the numerical approach taken by other leading engineers of the time, such as François Schüle (1860-1925).
Ritter had been Culmann's best student, and his assistant for four years after graduation. In 1873, at Culmann's recommendation, Ritter had been offered and taken up the chair of structural engineering at Riga polytechnic (est. 1862) in what is now Latvia.
In 1882, following Culmann's death, ETH had appointed Ritter to fill Culman's place as professor of structural engineering and bridge design. Ritter revised and simplified his mentor's methods and published works on graphic statics and design. He taught civil engineering courses and was a bridge consultant to three public bodies. He was to have a profound influence on Maillart. Two students of Ritter's work would be acknowledged as great bridge designers of the 20th century — Maillart working in reinforced concrete, and Othmar Ammann (1879-1965) designing steel bridges in the USA.
Ritter favoured practical over theoretical derivation of design principals, a stance that was to bring him into conflict with ideas then current in Germany. In 1892, this was illustrated by German professor Friedrich Engesser's (1848-1931) opposition to the full-scale load testing of small bridges — it was common practice in Switzerland to drive heavy vehicles over new bridges and observe the effects.
Engesser argued that the results could be reliably calculated instead and that this approach was cheaper. However, in the late 19th century, it was not possible to fully understand the response of a structure to its loads using only mathematics. Ritter felt that there was always some uncertainty involved when building structures in inaccessible locations such as those in rural Switzerland.
Maillart absorbed Ritter's views and concurred with them. His lecture notes from 1893 and 1894 show many drawings and diagrams infused with Ritter's ideas. Throughout his life, Maillart was to use load testing to gather information about the behaviour of his structures.
In Maillart's time at ETH in Zürich, there was no teaching or coursework on reinforced concrete — an emerging technology then hardly in use in Switzerland. In 1892, only two years after Maillart enrolled at ETH, reinforced concrete pioneer François Hennebique (1843-1921) patented what he called béton armé in France and Belgium, followed by a Swiss patent in 1893.
Maillart's engineering education was grounded in the use of such materials as stone and mild steel but the use of reinforced concrete for constructing buildings and bridges was to become the consuming passion of his working life.
main reference RM
1901 portrait of Robert Maillart
by A Wicky, copyright ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv