Who Invented Finite Elements?

During my college days, John D Anderson was my favorite author. I loved his writing style. His principle of flights and introduction to aerodynamics always began with a historical incident.

finite elements fem aerospace

This satellite view then zoomed into the dense lecture on the details of the subject.

Recently, for my work, I began dusting my fem knowledge and found this superb text. Reading this sent me back to my college days and reminded me of Anderson’s textbooks.

Here’s the text that gives the historical view on how and who invented the finite elements.

Who Invented Finite Elements?

Not just one individual, as this historical sketch will make clear. But if the question is tweaked to: who created the FEM in everyday use? there is no question in the writer’s mind: M. J. (Jon) Turner at Boeing over the period 1950–1962. He generalized and perfected the Direct Stiffness Method, and forcefully got Boeing to commit resources to it while other aerospace companies were mired in the Force Method.

During 1952–53 he oversaw the development of the first continuum based finite elements. In addition to Turner, major contributors to current practice include: B. M. Irons, inventor of isoparametric models, shape functions, the patch test and frontal solvers; R. J. Melosh, who recognized the Rayleigh-Ritz link and systematized the variational derivation of stiffness elements; and E. L.Wilson, who developed the first open source (and widely imitated and distributed) FEM software.

All of these pioneers were in the aerospace industry at least during part of their careers. That is not coincidence. FEM is the confluence of three ingredients, one of which is digital computation. And only large industrial companies (as well as some government agencies) were able to afford mainframe computers during the 1950s.

Who were the popularizers?
Four academicians: J. H. Argyris, R. W. Clough, H. C. Martin, and O. C. Zienkiewicz are largely responsible for the “technology transfer” from the aerospace industry to a wider range of engineering applications during the 1950s and 1960s. The first three learned the method from Turner directly or indirectly. As a consultant to Boeing in the early 1950s, Argyris, a Force Method expert then at Imperial College, received reports from Turner’s group, and weaved the material into his influencial 1954 serial.

To Argyris goes the credit of being the first in constructing a displacement-assumed continuum element. Clough and Martin, then junior professors at U.C. Berkeley and U. Washington, respectively, spent “faculty internship” summers at Turner’s group during 1952 and 1953. The result of this seminal collaboration was a celebrated paper, widely considered the start of the present FEM.

Clough baptized the method in 1960 and went on to form at Berkeley the first research group to propel the idea into Civil Engineering applications. Olek Zienkiewicz, originally an expert in finite difference methods who learned the trade from Southwell, was convinced in 1964 by Clough to try FEM. He went on to write the first textbook on the subject and to organize another important Civil Engineering research group in the University of Wales at Swansea.

History of Finite Elements! [PDF]


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