Conversations with Engineering Pioneers: Steven J. Fenves

Mon, March 25, 2024

In June 2023, NAE President John Anderson interviewed engineering pioneer NAE member Steven J. Fenves, holocaust survivor, civil engineer, and pioneer in the development of computer software for analysis of large structural systems. The full interview is available for viewing on the NAE YouTube channel. Segments from Dr. Fenves’ interview are noted below, and have been edited for grammar and clarity.

Early life in Yugoslavia

In 1941, at age 10, Yugoslavia was invaded by Germany and Fenves and his family were taken to concentration camps. Before being liberated in 1945, Fenves faced the hardships of the Holocaust including three train rides in sealed box cars, a 65-mile death march to Buchenwald, three concentration camps, and the loss of his parents. After the heartbreaking events Fenves, along with his sister, had to rediscover himself and carry on.

I wanted to create a career, forget about camps and starvation and filth and degradation. I just knew I had to do something to get away from that spirit. The loss of my parents was very hard. 

When I returned to the by then Soviet influenced Communist Yugoslavia, it was referred to as the worker's paradise. I was informed that because of my experiences I would be allowed to finish academic high school, but under no conditions would any university in the country accept me as a student. Because after all, I was the son of a bourgeois, and the universities are reserved for the sons of proletarians, and I couldn't fake proletarian background. It was a dead street there, so my sister and I escaped and got out of the Iron Curtain and that act, I think, gave us the momentum to go on.​

Three years in Paris was bleak. We didn’t have much to eat… But Paris is Paris. And Sunday morning the Louvre is open and every Sunday morning I walked through the Louvre and spent the day looking at art. So it wasn’t that bad.

Choice to become an Engineer

I was hesitating between the arts. Not necessarily performing arts but a critic or historian. That was my mother's influence. I was also interested in mechanical things, because I was aways interested.

I looked into the architecture schools. They were very old fashioned. The first year there was no subject other than freehand drawing. And I had just finished my math baccalaureate and I was interested in that, so I was looking for something that combined those two.​

A distant cousin sent me two books—two American books while I was still in Paris. One was a biography of a Swiss engineer who made some fabulous concrete bridges in the 30s and 40s. The other was an exhibit from the Museum of Fine Arts, bridges as art, discussing the aesthetics of bridges. And those two things that I read in the summer of 1950 convinced me that the subject of engineering would be the two things that brings it together.​

Achievements in Life and Engineering

After serving in the U.S. Army, completing his education and getting married, Fenves began his career in structural engineering. He’s best known for moving structural engineering to the computer age.

If I skip the term professional for a second, the foremost achievement is our four children. We are inordinately proud of them.

Technically, I think the push that I’ve been making in moving structural engineering … to the computer age is what I’m best known for.

I managed to pull together all of the standard structural types, techniques from electrical engineering and many other areas for efficient computation of that across the full range of sizes. My motto was small problems should not be penalized for the programs’ capabilities. Impressed particularly by Charlie Miller, MIT, I added a problem-oriented language so that the people could communicate with the computer as they would with a professional colleague rather than remembering keynotes and digital entries the specified a problem. 

Faz (structural engineer Fazlur Khan) was very generous in his article on the design of the (Hancock) tower. He credits me with assisting with the design. I did no such thing. I had the only program capable of handling fully 3-dimensional analysis of the structure and for the configure that he had selected that was very important. When a very, very respected structural engineer gave a talk at the Illinois Society of Structural Engineers and said, ‘Steve’s program says the building will stand. I say the building will fall.’  

(NOTE: The John Hancock building in Chicago, the world's first mixed-use tower, is an architectural icon that remains standing.)

Advice for Today’s Engineers

A very famous geotechnical engineer of the earlier generation, Karl Terzaghi, always addressed that in his lectures, he said, “invent the discipline and become the best in it.” I think a successful engineer has to have both the ability to concentrate and the ability to generalize. [They should] think deeply about a problem and come up with a solution that maybe others in the organization are not capable of.

My advice always is to look forward and never look back.

To view the full interview with Steven J. Fenves click here.

To view all “Conversations with Engineering Pioneers” interviews, please visit the playlist on the NAE YouTube channel.