If you were trying to find the most interesting and exciting job in the concrete business, looking through a microscope at a thin section of concrete might not be at the top of your list. But Bernie Erlin, the father of concrete petrography, would beg to differ: “It’s like being a detective or Perry Mason. You get to help people understand the material and the causes of any problems.” For the younger audience, think CSI for concrete with Erlin as the wise mentor and the rest of us watching in awe as he solves another mystery.
Twist of fate
Erlin became a petrographer through one of those simple twists of fate. As a fresh University of Wisconsin geology graduate in 1956, his intention was to seek fame and fortune in the oil fields of Texas with a fellow geology graduate. “But first this fellow wanted to go home for the summer,” he explains. “September came and he never showed up and by that time I had a girlfriend and wanted to stay near Madison. So I got a job at the Portland Cement Association in Chicago working in their research lab, which got me started in petrography and the cement and concrete industry. I eventually learned that the reason my friend never came back was that he had drowned! If he hadn’t drowned, I wouldn’t be here today.”
In those days, PCA was in its heyday as the leading concrete research organization, with a staff that included most of the top minds in the field. “It was a great place to learn—they were the only ones doing petrography,” he says. He applied geology techniques to cement and concrete, using microscopy and chemistry, and soon became the go-to guy for cement and concrete problems. This is also where he met friend and long-time partner Bill Hime.
In 1968, Erlin left PCA to launch his own company. “I started Bernard Erlin Consultants. Three years later, I convinced Bill to leave PCA and join me and we formed Erlin-Hime Associates.” Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, even after it became a part of Wiss Janney Elstner in 1984, Erlin-Hime Associates was where the industry went with questions about concrete chemistry, especially when there was an unexplained failure.
The power of petrography comes through in Erlin’s stories, which he can tell all day long. “I remember a case we had in [actor] Jack Benny’s hometown of Waukegan, Ill.,” he says. “A plaza in front of the city hall was made with a paver system that had deteriorated within a few years. In my investigation of the setting beds, I found the impressions of ice crystals, so I knew that the setting bed had been placed in the wintertime and had frozen so it never attained the strength it was supposed to. I testified to that and the attorney in cross-examination asked, ‘You mean to tell me that the ice crystals are still there after five years?’ No, I told him, the crystals are gone but the impressions are still there and the damage that the freezing caused is still there. ‘It’s like,’ I said, ‘footprints in the sands of time.’”
Another unexplained failure Erlin solved concerned a new highway pavement that had big, popped-out pieces about 6 inches in diameter extending down to the reinforcing steel. “The day the contractor and owner walked the pavement for final inspection, they found these popouts,” says Erlin. “The contractor said, ‘I walked this pavement last week and the popouts weren’t here’—he thought someone was sabotaging him! Someone dropped off a piece for me to look at. I found that on the underside, on the fractured surface, there was a thin film of glassy material. The concrete matrix had actually melted along a very thin face and nothing else was affected. For something like that to happen, you need an instantaneous source of very high heat. The only way for this to happen was either a high tension line contacting the concrete, or lightning. We determined that lightning had hit the pavement and electricity had traveled along the steel to the end of a load transfer dowel where it had no place to go so it arced, producing very high temperatures and popping out those pieces. So in the end, it was an act of God, but there’s one thing to remember about God—he doesn’t pay!”
When Bernie and Bill began writing their CC column in 2004, “Erlin & Hime on Concrete” (or “Hime & Erlin on Concrete” in alternating months), I gave them leeway to write about what they wanted. Erlin took full advantage, discussing pozzolans by describing a moonlit walk on the romantic Greek island Santorini with Sophia Loren. Or making concrete on the moon after drinking enough beer to provide the necessary fluids. He and Hime continued to write the column until August 2010. Last year he collected all of these gems, and other articles they have written over the years, into a book titled The Concrete Intrigue, A New Kind of Concrete Book, available at the World of Concrete Bookstore.
Today, Erlin continues to work out of his lab near Pittsburgh. His love of petrography and the mysteries it reveals keeps him interested, and also keeps people beating a path to his door. “I keep trying to retire,” he says, “but I find it difficult to turn work down.” He remains young at heart and when he looks into his microscope he sees romance and mystery and finds solutions no one else can.