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Theory and practice

Establishment of the Strength of Materials Laboratory 114 years ago led to advances in technological development

Inside view of the laboratory, at Poli, where material testing was performed (undated)

USP Polytechnic School Central LibraryInside view of the laboratory, at Poli, where material testing was performed (undated)USP Polytechnic School Central Library

Antonio Francisco de Paula Souza was the first dean of the São Paulo Polytechnic School (Poli), created by state law in 1893. He was also a professor of Strength of Materials and Structure Stability, and responsible for implementing a unique proposal at the time, namely the creation of the Strength of Materials Laboratory (SML) within Poli in 1899. The idea was considered odd in Brazil at the end of the 19th century because it brought together theoretical and practical teaching in a plan developed by Ludwig Tetmayer, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH in German), at the request of Paula Souza.

“It was during this period that systematic, continuous research on the strength of materials began to be undertaken,” says the historian Marilda Nagamini, who obtained her PhD from the University of São Paulo (USP), and is the author, with Shozo Motoyama, of the book Escola Politécnica, 110 anos construindo o futuro (The Polytechnic School, building the future for 110 years) (EPUSP, 2004). Before, there was the Rio de Janeiro study on wood in 1877 by the brothers André and José Rebouças, both engineers, and an essay by Adolpho José del Vecchio on building materials in 1883.”The difference between the different periods is the continuity of the research,” explains Nagamini. Greater proof of this practice at Poli was the publication by Grêmio Politécnica (an association of Poli students) of the Manual de resistência de materiais (Material Strength Manual) in 1905, under the supervision of Paula Souza (1843-1917) and Francisco de Paula Ramos de Azevedo (1851-1928).

Wilhelm Fischer (wearing a black vest and apron) with SML colleagues; to the right, the Material Strength Manual (undated)

USP Polytechnic School Central LibraryWilhelm Fischer (wearing a black vest and apron) with SML colleagues; to the right, the Material Strength Manual (undated)USP Polytechnic School Central Library

In the book História da técnica e da tecnologia no Brasil  (The History of Know-How and Technology in Brazil) (Unesp, 1997), organized by Milton Vargas, he states that the manual was “the first work on technology ever published in Brazil.” Vargas was a pioneer in soil mechanics in Brazil, a professor at Poli—one of the schools that joined together to form to USP in 1934—and an engineer at the São Paulo Institute for Technological Research (IPT).

The manual included results of tests on the physical, chemical and mechanical properties of cement, lime, concrete, stone, bricks, tiles, wood and metals, as well as their structural behavior when subjected to different physical forces. One particularly interesting aspect was the inclusion of the analysis of concrete, rarely used at the time. The publication was the result of the SML’s earliest activities.

In 1903 Wilhelm Fischer, then Tetmayer’s assistant at ETH, became the manager of the SML and gave it new life, together with engineers such as Hippolyto Gustavo Pujol Junior. The laboratory gained prestige with the publication of the manual and started to be asked to provide reports, not only in construction, but also for roads, and port, rail and industrial facilities.
 Due to the demand, many Poli professors and engineers opened construction offices and companies, keeping up with the development of the state of São Paulo.

Fischer led the SML until 1906 and was replaced by Pujol, who expanded the laboratory by adding sections for conducting physical and mechanical tests, metallographic tests, preparing test specimens and completing small repairs.
The metallographic laboratory was a replica of the laboratory at the Dion-Bouton plant in Paris.
 Paula Souza was proud of the laboratory and said it was the most modern in the Americas.

Paula Souza (seated, second from the left) with other Poli colleagues in the laboratory (undated)

USP Polytechnic School Central LibraryPaula Souza (seated, second from the left) with other Poli colleagues in the laboratory (undated)USP Polytechnic School Central Library

Systematic studies and investment in equipment made technological advances possible. It was the SML’s work that supported industrial-scale manufacturing of centrifugally-cast iron pipes, used in water and sewage systems, and the dissemination of the use of reinforced concrete in buildings. 
The first large building in São Paulo made with this technique, the Guinle, was based on SML experimental studies, as was one of the first skyscrapers in Brazil (the Martinelli) and the Viaduto do Chá (an overpass in downtown São Paulo).

In 1926, the Paulista, Mogyana and Sorocabana Railways, habitual users of SML services, made financial donations to enlarge the laboratory and transform it into a Materials Testing Laboratory (MTL), under the direction of Ary Frederico Torres. In 1934, led by Torres, the MTL became the IPT, with administrative autonomy from Poli. The idea was to allow it to act on a broader scale, as it still does today: exploring new fields of research, serving as a state laboratory for checking measurements and standards, and continuing to provide services to third parties.