Born in the town of Soltau, the son of local teacher Georg Heinrich Wöhler showed early mathematical ability and won a scholarship to study at the Technische Hochschule in Hannover, under the direction of Karl Karmarsch.
In 1840, he was recruited to the Borsig works in Berlin where he worked on the manufacture of rail tracks. In 1843, after a brief stay in Hannover, he started to receive instruction in locomotive driving in Belgium, returning as an engineer on the Hannover to Lehrte line. By 1847, Wöhler was chief superintendent of rolling stock on the Lower Silesia-Brandenberg Railroad. His growing reputation led to his appointment in 1852 by the Prussian minister of commerce to investigate the causes of fracture in railroad axles, work that was to occupy Wöhler over the next two decades.
The railroad was nationalised in 1854 and the recognition of his keen administration and technical leadership resulted in his appointment as director of the newly formed Imperial Railways*, based at the board's headquarters in Strasbourg, a post he held until his retirement in 1889.
Wöhler started his axle investigations by research into the theory of elasticity and was led, in 1855, to a method for predicting the deflection of lattice beams that anticipated the work of Émile Clapeyron1. He also introduced the practice of supporting one end of a bridge on roller bearings to allow for thermal expansion.
His work on fatigue marks the first systematic investigation of S-N Curves, also known as Wöhler curves, to characterise the fatigue behaviour of materials2. Such curves can be used to minimise the problem of fatigue by lowering the stress at critical points in a component. Wohler showed clearly that fatigue occurs by crack growth from surface defects until the product can no longer support the applied load. The history of a fracture can be understood from a study of the fracture surface. He developed apparatus for repeated loading of railway axles, mainly because many accidents were caused by sudden fatigue fracture. The presentation of his work at the Paris Exposition in 1867 brought it to a wide international audience3,4.
He died in Hannover in 1914.
- Blaum, R (1918) August Wöhler, Beiträge zur Geschichte der Technik und Industrie vol. 8, pp33-35 (in German)
- Ruske, W. (1969) August Wöhler (1819-1914) zur 150. Wiederkehr seines Geburtstages, Materialprüfung vol. 11, pp181-188
- Stephen Timoshenko History of the Strength of Materials, Dover (1983), p 167 ff
- Schutz, W A History of Fatigue, Engineering Fracture Mechanics, 54(2), 263-300 (1996).
- Wöhler, A. (1855) Theorie rechteckiger eiserner Brückenbalken mit Gitterwänden und mit Blechwänden, Zeitschrift für Bauwesen vol. 5 pp121-166
- Wöhler, A. (1870) Über die Festigkeitsversuche mit Eisen und Stahl, Zeitschrift für Bauwesen vol. 20 pp73-106
- Wöhler's experiments on the strength of metals (1867) Engineering vol. 4 pp160-161
- Wöhler, A. (1871) Engl. Abstr. Eng. vol. 2
- Smith RA, Hillmansen S. A brief historical overview of the fatigue of railway axles. Proc Inst Mech Engng 2004;218:267–77.
- Brief description of Wöhler's work [NOT WORKING]