Johnson, J. W. (Joe William), b. 1908

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Joe William Johnson was born on July 19, 1908 in Pittsburg, Kansas. He grew up in Winslow, Arizona, and Los Angeles, California. He spent his first two years of college at the University of California, Los Angeles, and then transferred to Berkeley, where he received his B.S. degree in May 1931 and his M.S. degree in May 1934, both in civil engineering.

After graduating, Johnson spent a year at the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg, Mississippi. He then transferred to the U.S. Soil Conservation Service in Washington, D.C., where he worked on sediment transportation from 1935 until 1942. During this time Johnson was instrumental in the design and operation of a research laboratory for the study of sediment transport. This research is documented in a number of his early papers.

In July 1942, Johnson was appointed as Assistant Professor in the Division of Mechanical Engineering at the University of California, Riverside. He immediately became involved in the intensive study of waves and beaches, which were being undertaken as part of the major war effort in amphibious operations during World War II. This work for the U.S. Navy's Bureau of Ships was conducted both at the Department of Engineering, Berkeley, under the direction of Morrough P. O'Brien, and at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at La Jolla under the direction of H. U. Sverdrup. Some of Johnson's colleagues in this war work were R. G. Folsom, J. A. Putnam, J. D. Isaacs, W. N. Bascom, and H. W. Iversen. The work was classified, but after the war a number of technical papers were published on these studies. Johnson's involvement is evident from his papers on wave generation, wave refraction, and impulsively generated waves (he worked on the latter at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, March-June 1944). A broad description of the project was published in the article Wartime Research on Waves and Surf, by M. P. O'Brien and J. W. Johnson ( The Military Engineer, Vol. 39, no. 260, June 1947). The research included wave and surf forecasting and associated observations and measurements, development and installation of wave and tide recorders, littoral currents, waves generated by underwater explosions, and the effect of the surf on the behavior of amphibious and amphibian vehicles, and on their operation.

In 1946, Johnson was promoted to Associate Professor in the Mechanical Engineering Division. In 1952, he was appointed Professor of Hydraulic Engineering in the Department of Civil Engineering, where he remained until his retirement in 1975. His colleagues during this time included H. A. Einstein, P. D. Trask, P. H. McGauhey, G. J. Giefer, D. K. Todd, and R. L. Wiegel (Johnson and Hans Albert Einstein had been colleagues earlier when they both worked on sediment transport for the Soil Conservation Service).

During his tenure at Berkeley, Johnson was continuously active in teaching, research and administration. He served as Director of the Hydraulic Engineering Laboratory (1959-1967), Chairman of the Division of Hydraulic and Sanitary Engineering (1963-1967, acting Chairman, 1971-1972), and Archivist, Water Resources Collections and Archives (1963-1973).

Johnson taught both undergraduate and graduate courses in hydraulics and coastal engineering and he supervised a large number of Ph.D. students. He also believed in the value of continuing professional education for engineers, and lectured in a number of short courses in coastal engineering given by the University of California Extension Division and at other universities. His research in coastal engineering was prolific, with more than one hundred published papers and technical reports. Johnson retired from academia in 1975 as Professor Emeritus of Hydraulic Engineering.

During the immediate post-war years, Johnson continued to work with O'Brien, together with a number of young researchers, including R. L. Wiegel, C. L. Bretschneider, R. C. Crooke, R. C. McCamy, T. Saville, Jr., F. A. Snodgrass, and J. R. Morison. This was the time of rapid growth in coastal engineering research and the work by the group brought a number of visiting scholars to Berkeley to study and perform research in this field. These included Kiyoshi Horikawa, Egbert Prins, and Per Bruun.

Because of his thorough knowledge of waves and beaches, Johnson has been much sought after as a consulting engineer. He has worked on projects as varied as beach erosion in Venezuela; an ore port in Brazil; a harbor in Puerto Rico; port developments in Mexico, Australia, Egypt, Peru and in the Persian Gulf; small craft harbors in California; wave action at Puerto Matarani, Peru; harbor sedimentation in Argentina; a port site study in Guatemala; sand dunes in Portugal; a wood chip port in Brazil; a breakwater in Guam; beach and harbor studies in many parts of the coastal United States; and several projects in Canada.

Johnson's major hobby is the history of hydraulics, especially hydraulic engineering in the "Gold Country" in California. His papers Engineering Highlights of the California Mining Days ( California Engineer, May 1949), and Early Engineering Center in California, ( California Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. 29, no. 3, Sept. 1950), are most interesting accounts of this early work, well illustrated with old photographs. In his 1949 paper, Johnson states:

"To operate the various pieces of mining equipment, relatively crude water wheels called 'hurdy-gurdies' were used extensively. These wheels operated at relatively low efficiencies, and it was not until 1880 that Lester Pelton of Comptonville developed the improved impulse turbine bucket, which is now known as the Pelton bucket. Pelton's invention, the use of a center splitter in the bucket, moved the impulse turbine from the class of a crude, inefficient, home-made hurdy-gurdy to that of an efficient prime mover. One of the first types of the Pelton Wheel is now on display in the Hydraulic Court of the Mechanics Building on the Berkeley campus. This small wheel was built from patterns supplied by Pelton and was tested in the University's hydraulic laboratory in 1883. The results of these tests constitute Bulletin No. 1 of the Department of Engineering."

Johnson found the "hurdy-gurdy" wheel used at the Monarch Mine, Sierra City, Sierra County, California and it is now mounted over the entrance to the Hydraulic Engineering Laboratory in O'Brien Hall at the University of California, Riverside. The Pelton Wheel is on loan to the Oakland Museum of California.

Johnson has also been interested in early photographs of engineering works and natural scenes in California. His report The Early Pacific Coast Photographs of Carleton E. Watkins (Archives series report no. 8, Water Resources Center, University of California, Riverside, 1960) was one of the first to recognize the important work of pioneer 19th century photographer Carleton E. Watkins (1829-1916). Johnson wrote another paper, Historical Photographs and the Coastal Engineer ( Shore & Beach, Vol. 29, no. 1, Apr. 1961), in which he described the importance of using old photographs in estimating coastal changes. In the article, he reproduced three sets of photographs taken in the vicinity of the mouth of the Noyo and Big Rivers near Mendocino, California. Three photographs by C. E. Watkins, taken in 1860, are compared with three photographs taken from the exact same locations 100 years later in 1960 by Eugene Compton of Berkeley, California.

Johnson became editor of Shore & Beach, the journal of the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association, in 1974, and remained in this capacity until his "retirement at the age of eighty" in July 1988.

Excerpted from Biographical Sketch of Joe W. Johnson, by Robert L. Wiegel ( Shore & Beach, Vol. 56, no. 4, Oct. 1988), which also includes all of Johnson's professional activities and awards and a bibliography of key papers authored and co-authored by Johnson.

From the guide to the J. W. Johnson Papers, 1863-2000 (bulk 1933-1988), (Water Resources Collections and Archives)

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creatorOf J. W. Johnson Papers, 1863-2000 (bulk 1933-1988) Water Resources Collections and Archives
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Place Name Admin Code Country
Bolinas Lagoon (Calif.)
Coastal engineering


Birth 1908

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