A.H. “Tommy” Atkinson grew up on an Oregon farm with no electricity or indoor plumbing. His parents divorced when he was five; he grew up in what we would now call poverty. Despite this, Tommy graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1933 and was in the first class of Sloan Fellows at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1934.
Coming out of school at the depth of the Depression, Tommy took the only job available: deck hand on a banana boat. Later he worked for Puget Sound Power & Light in Tacoma WA. Then, six weeks after his wedding, Pearl Harbor happened. Tommy immediately re-enlisted, hoping for active service, but was sent two thousand miles inland to teach navigation at the University of Michigan.
Tommy continued to seek action and was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Bataan as navigator in late 1943. He served under Spruance and Hallsey in the South Pacific through the worst of the kamikaze attacks – a USN photo shows the Bataan showered with water and debris from a kamikaze Judy whose 500-pound bomb missed the carrier’s stern by two feet. As the Bataan had just refuelled with aviation-grade kerosene, the Judy would have turned her into a floating bomb.
After the war Tommy formed his own engineering firm, predicting the performance of hyperboloids and other thin-shell structures via physical modelling. Tommy’s greatest contribution to engineering was the Z-deck, the world’s first composite deck. This invention left in place the steel formwork used to support concrete poured for building floors, linking steel and concrete into an elegant two-material sandwich. The result was lighter, stiffer, stronger structures that were less expensive by every measurement – money, labor, materials, environmental load, and life-cycle cost.
Tommy built his own house in 1952 and lived in it for fifty years. To this day he remains my model of a great engineer, mathematical genius, and efficient but reluctant warrior – an officer and a gentleman.