Ralph Brazelton Peck’s first exposure to “soils” wasn’t in the halls of academia. The summer after high school, Peck, a junior member of a Denver and Rio Grande Railroad signal gang, performed trackside manual labor for 55 cents per hour. The work, mostly involving a shovel, made college seem like a good idea.
Peck enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1930, eventually earning a doctorate in civil engineering.
After getting laid off from this first job, he attended a soil mechanics course at Harvard before moving to Chicago to help survey and monitor excavations being made for the city’s subway.
In 1942, he joined the faculty at the University of Illinois, where he helped build a geotechnical engineering program and authored the field’s most influential textbook, “Soil Mechanics in Engineering Practice.”
“Engineering is indeed a noble sport,” he said, “and the legacy of good engineers is a better physical world for those who follow them.”