Early life and education
Oscar Faber was born in Lambeth, London, on 5th July 1886 to Danish parents and though staunchly British, he was always proud of his ancestry. He was the eldest of six children and had two brothers and three sisters.
Faber's father, Harald Nicolaj (1856-1943), was part of a family descended from farmers at Odense on the central Danish Island of Fyn. He was also one of six children and the eldest son of a teacher (and later member of the Danish Parliament), Christian Faber (1822-83) and Berthe Bruun Muus (Brown Mouse). Harald had studied natural sciences and graduated from Copenhagen University in 1881, taking his first job at a sugar factory in Odense. Overseas employment as a chemist followed at the Pennsylvania Salt Manufacturing Co. and the Dairy Supply Co. in London.
Harald had returned to Copenhagen in 1885, where he married Sophie Cecilie Bentzien (known as Cecilie, 1862-1947) at St Petersburg Matthew Church, Sokkelund on 6th July. The couple settled in London where Harald was appointed Agricultural Commissioner for Denmark in 1888 running the city's office, a post he held until his retirement in 1931. Britain was the major consumer of Danish dairy products at the time.
Christian's other three sons also had professional careers. Two were medical — Knud was a surgeon, noted for his research into tetanus, and Erik was a doctor. Svend graduated from the London School of Electrical & Mechanical Engineering in 1893 and held posts in London, Nüremburg, Paris, Berlin and Copenhagen, where he was responsible for the electrification of the Copenhagen tramway system.
Harald and Cecilie's growing family — Oscar's sister Harriet was born in 1887 — had moved to Bromley by the time Ella was born in 1890. The three remaining children Sven Erik (1892), Cecil Torben (1896) and Ida Gertrude (1900) were all born there. Oscar was not the only budding engineer, his brother Erik would become an eminent structural engineer, based in Hong Kong from 1928, and known for his work on the Hong Kong Ocean Terminal.
In 1897, aged 11, Faber won a scholarship to St Dunstan's College, Catford in south London. He was an active pupil joining clubs, playing sports, editing the school paper and ultimately becoming Head of School. Professor W.C. Unwin (Dean of St Dunstan's, and later friend) influenced Faber with his clear and analytical approach to engineering, and concise use of English — qualities that Faber later adopted in his books and papers.
Another scholarship — the 1903 Clothworkers' Scholarship, awarded to the person with the highest matriculation marks — earned Faber a place at the Central Technical College (City & Guilds College from 1907, and part of Imperial College of London University) where he studied electrical engineering. Electric lighting was still on an experimental scale in the early 20th century, supply systems were unreliable, voltages varied and there were more direct current than alternating current schemes operating.
Faber graduated (BSc) in 1905 and by then he had seen the potential of 'ferro-concrete', as reinforced concrete was then known. He transferred to the Civil & Mechanical department for his post-graduate year, where he researched the emerging field of reinforced concrete and gained a DSc in 1906. While studying he took an active part in the college's Engineer’s Society, speaking at meetings and presenting a paper on turbo generators.
Reinforced concrete construction was at this time still dominated by the various patented systems developed in Europe. In 1904, there were over 50 systems in use in this country, the secrets of each guarded jealously. While Faber was at college, the leading practitioner in Britain was perhaps Louis Gustave Mouchel
(1852-1908), who used François Hennebique's (1842-1921) system of iron and steel reinforcement (patented 1892).
Before the late 1800s, little scientific analysis had been undertaken. Engineers relied on experience and rules of thumb. François Coignet (1818-88), first to use iron-reinforced concrete in buildings — for a roof slab near Paris in 1853 (still standing) — did little theoretical work. In 1895, Armand Considère (1841-1914) began tests on resistance in beams and columns, which resulted in his recommending close helical binding instead of straight rods for reinforcement, though he didn't invent the concept. The Paris Exhibition of 1900 revealed to a wide international audience for the first time the potential of reinforced concrete as a building material.
Faber's timing, therefore, was interesting, for by 1910, reinforced concrete would be widely known and used, and he had the opportunity to contribute to its further development at a pivotal stage. His research led to an extensive, as well as an increased, understanding of creep, shrinkage and shear in the material. The growing recognition of his work in this field, achieved through publication of his work, meant that it would be a number of years before he returned to the mechanical and electrical focus of his early training.
Years later, in 1944, Faber became president of the City & Guilds Engineer's Society and donated money for the Faber Prize, awarded annually to the best student paper written and presented there.
Portrait courtesy AECOM