Esteban Terradas i Illa

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15 September 1883
Barcelona, Spain
9 May 1950
Madrid, Spain

Esteban Terradas was Spanish was a mathematician, physicist and engineer. He held prestigious positions in Barcelona and Madrid universities and also made considerable contributions to the development of Spanish railways, aerospace, and other industries.


Esteban Terradas i Illa, also known as Esteve Terradas, was the son of Marcellí Terradas i Domingo, from Barcelona, and Leonor Illa i Navarro, from L'Arboc, a village about 40 km west of Barcelona. Marcellí Terradas, who was a merchant, died when Esteban was two years old and, together with his three brothers, he entered the guardianship of his uncle, Joseph Terradas, a priest, who sent him to complete his primary studies in Charlottenburg, on the outskirts of Berlin. He remained there until he was thirteen years old and, by that time, was fluent in German and French in addition to his native language.

Back in Barcelona in 1896, Esteban received private tuition to enable him to sit the baccalaureate examinations. These were demanding with fifteen different subjects being examined, but after two years of study he passed them successfully in 1898 and later that year began his university studies in the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Barcelona. His aim at this stage was to enter the School of Industrial Engineering and, in order to achieve this, he took preparatory mathematics and science subjects and did not begin his studies of engineering until 1902. By this time he had decided to work for a Bachelor of Science degree which he was awarded in 1904. His performance was outstanding and he was awarded the 'Premio Extraordinario'. Also in 1904 he published his first paper, Propiedades de las raíces de la unidad , which was published in the Revista Trimestral de Matemáticas and later in the same year he published, in the same journal, Estudiar analíticamente las condiciones de los hilos flexibles, pesados, que suspendidos por sus extremos de dos puntos fijos, realicen catenarias de formas especiales dadas .

In order to continue his studies for a doctorate, Terradas went to the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. This was a necessary move since at this time Madrid was the only Spanish university able to award doctorates. In June 1905 he defended two doctoral theses, one in physics and one in mathematics, and was awarded two doctorates. His physics thesis was Algunas propiedades sencillas de la luz absorbida por ciertos cuerpos cristalinos while his mathematics thesis was Condiciones para que un hilo homogéneo, flexible, inextensible e inelástico, deslice según la curva que forma, esto es, para que todos sus puntos tengan por trayectoria la misma curva que realiza . Also in 1905 he published three papers in the Anales de la Sociedad Espanola de Física y Química, a journal which had only been founded two years earlier in 1903. These papers have the titles: Efecto de la luz circulante polarizada al atravesar una lámina absorbente cristalina, no activa ; Sobre algunas curvas realizadas por cuerdas en movimiento ; and Sobre el cálculo de las intensidades en una red de conductores lineales .

After the two doctorates, Terradas was appointed as an assistant professor at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, then in 1906 he took a competitive examination for the Chair of Rational Mechanics at the University of Zaragoza which he won. Julio Rey Pastor was at this time a student at the University of Zaragoza and many years later he recalled (see for example [27]):-
I was already a student in Zaragoza in 1906, when the news spread: the new professor of Rational Mechanics has arrived, but he is a boy! A boy, certainly, because of his age, but a great gentleman because of his distinction and his culture; a boy who spoke perfectly all the learned languages and knew the history and literature of all countries, a boy who handled elliptic functions with the same ease as our old professors handled trigonometry.
Terradas only spent one year at the University of Zaragoza before returning to his hometown of Barcelona in 1907 when he won, by competitive examination, the Chair of Acoustics and Optics at the University of Barcelona. He published Fenómenos de polarización en el cuarzo (1907) and Teorías modernas acerca de la emisión de la luz (1909). In 1907 the Real Academia de Ciencias y Artes de Barcelona awarded him their Agell Prize for the second of the 1904 papers we mentioned above. In 1909 he was elected to the Real Academia de Ciencias y Artes de Barcelona and delivered an inaugural address on the emission of radiation by fixed or moving bodies which he delivered [27]:-
...with true mastery of the various theories about radiation that have been established by Maxwell, Jeans, Lorentz, Planck and other scholars, laying down the principles of Statistical Mechanics, which serves wonderfully to be applied to theories of electromagnetism.
Despite achieving leading academic positions, Terradas had returned to his original aim, namely to study or a degree in Industrial Engineering. This was a very demanding course which required him to be examined in twenty different subjects which he sat at a single examination diet in 1909.

He attended the International Congress of Mathematicians in 1908 in Rome and, four years later, the International Congress of Mathematicians in Cambridge, England. At the Cambridge Congress he gave the lecture Sur le mouvement d'un fil in which he studied the movement of a wire in the case where all its points describe the same trajectory relatively to axes given a rotational movement. This had been the subject of his 1904 paper which won the Agell Prize.

The Barcelona Astronomical Society was founded on 30 January 1910 with the aim of involving both professional academics and amateurs. Terradas, although he was not an astronomer, had such a high reputation for learning that he was elected as the first president of the Society and delivered his presidential address on The Progress of Astronomy. The Society began with 210 members in 1910 and this had grown to 370 by 1912.

Terradas married Maria Lluïsa Vía i Freixas (1887-1977) and they had a son, Robert Terradas i Via (1916-1976). Let us record that Robert studied at the Barcelona School of Architecture, obtaining his degree in 1942, and went on to be the director of the Barcelona School of Architecture from 1960 to 1967. As an architect his buildings in Barcelona include the Royal Polo Club, the Swiss School, the Barcelona School of Industrial Engineering, the College of Physicians, and the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters.

In 1919 Terradas founded the Institute of Applied Electricity and Mechanics and was its director; he was also a professor in the electrical engineering section of the Escola del Treball.

The Enciclopedia universal ilustrada europeo-americana is a Spanish encyclopaedia comprising of 72 volumes published between 1908 and 1930 followed by a 10-volume appendix published in 1933-35. It is believed that Terradas wrote around 180 articles for the encyclopaedia which have been described as "an inexhaustible source, full of treasures." As examples of his articles we note the following: Aberration, Acoustics, Aerodynamics, Aerostatics, Algebra, Algebraic functions, Alternators, Asteroids, Astigmatism, Calculus, Calculus of probabilities, Differential Equations, Electricity, Gravity, Heat, Hydrodynamics, Kinematics, Locomotive, Magnetism, Mechanics, Moon, Number, Optics, Plate, Quantum theory, Riemann surfaces, Statistical Mechanics, Theory of Relativity, Vibration.

Terradas was involved in a remarkable number of different projects. In 1913 he was appointed "technical adviser" to the Pedagogical Research Council of the Barcelona Provincial Council. Beginning in 1914 he taught automobile technologies at the School of Arts and Crafts of the Provincial Council of Barcelona. He was Director of the Telephony Division of the Commonwealth of Catalonia from 1916 to 1924 [27]:-
It was a position of high technical responsibility, since he had to try to comply with the political will of the Commonwealth to make the telephone reach all corners of Catalan territory. ... During his tenure, the Catalan telephone network notably expanded its services, transforming the telephone map of Catalonia.
Although his interests took him to become involved in so many projects, he did not neglect his academic interests and did much to make those in Spain aware of quantum theory and relativity. He invited to Barcelona leading mathematicians and physicists such as Jacques Hadamard (1921), Hermann Weyl (1921), Arnold Sommerfeld (1922), Tullio Levi-Civita (1922), Béla Kerékjártó (1923) and Albert Einstein (1923). We note that after discussions with Terradas, Einstein said [10]:-
I have discovered an extraordinary man: Terradas.
He was also Director of the Secondary Railways Department of the Commonwealth of Catalonia from 1918 to 1924. Despite the degrees he had already been awarded, he felt that he needed to be as well qualified as others in the Department so he graduated as a Civil Engineer taking two examinations (June and September 1918), for the twenty required subjects. José Manuel Sánchez Ron relates the following episode in [26]:-
Terradas had an extraordinary love of knowledge and erudition, and anecdotes abound of his learning, even while he lived. For example, referring to Terradas' civil engineering examination, the architect Joan Bergós ... related that his friend, who was very knowledgeable about architecture, confided in him that he had "not dared to study it formally for fear that in the Advanced School he would lose his passion for architecture, the first of the arts. Bergós added that in the architecture examination for the Civil Engineering School, when questioned in regard to 'Byzantine decadence mouldings', Terradas was able to draw these without hesitation, to the total stupefaction of the Examining Board.
Under his leadership four lines were started: Reus-Montroig; Lleida-Fraga; Tàrrega-Balaguer; and Tarragona-Ponts. Political events, however, led to this work being abandoned. The cause was the military coup in Spain on 13 September 1923 led by Miguel Primo de Rivera who established himself as a dictator. Although Primo de Rivera's aim was to modernise Spain, he tried to stamp out Catalan culture and this made for many difficulties. Terradas, however, continued his interest in railways and joined the Metropolitano Transversal de Barcelona in 1923 and made an essential contribution to the completion of the Catalonia-La Bordeta section in 1926.

In 1927 Terradas moved to Madrid and became a university member of Primo de Rivera's National Assembly. A position was arranged for him at the University of Madrid and in 1928 he was appointed to the Chair of Differential Equations. In addition to holding these positions, he became a professor at the Escuela Superior Aerotécnica in 1929. Around the time he moved to Madrid, he spent some time in South America, filling the Chair of Spanish Culture at the Spanish Cultural Institution of Buenos Aires. He gave lecture courses, spoke at conferences and established contacts in Chile, Uruguay and Bolivia. In 1929 he took on yet another role as director of the National Telephone Company of Spain.

Political events, however, led to difficulties for Terradas. King Alfonso XIII of Spain was deposed and on 14 April 1931 the Spanish Republic, usually called the Second Republic, was proclaimed. As a result Terradas left his post with the National Telephone Company in June 1931. In September 1931 the Ministry of Public Instruction decided to removed him from the Chair of Differential Equations. A competition was then held for the Chair which Terradas entered but was unsuccessful. He then held the Chair of Rational Mechanics from 1932-33. He had been elected to the Spanish Royal Academy of Sciences on 4 February 1931 and he delivered an inaugural lecture Programa de un curso sobre ecuaciones diferenciales on 15 February 1933. In this lecture he described his approach to teaching differential equations which he had prepared for the competition for the Chair of Differential Equations but which, for political reasons, he had failed to win. Julio Rey Pastor gave a speech welcoming Terradas to the Spanish Royal Academy of Sciences and spoke of the difficulties he was encountering:-
Under the Catalan Commonwealth, he had the opportunity to carry out his multiple activities in the organisation of the Institut d'Estudis Catalans, and in the construction of the telephone network, of the secondary railways ... And seeing in the call of the first dictatorship the possibility of working for Spain, he sacrificed his personal opinions to work together with other distinguished comrades of ours, within the radius of his possibilities; and the same he would have done under any political regime oriented towards the opposite fundamental view.
The left-wing Popular Front won the 1936 election and the situation rapidly deteriorated towards a civil war. Terradas, a Catholic who was labelled a conservative, was out of favour in Republican Barcelona and he realised he had to leave Spain. He left at the end of October 1936, going to Argentina, where he remained until 1941 [26]:-
Terradas was very active in his years in Argentina. At the University of Buenos Aires he gave courses on mathematics and engineering; at the National University of La Plata, he was associated with the Astronomical Observatory and participated in the measurement of a meridian arc extending from the extreme north of Argentine to the south, directing the hydrographical part of the project (specifically, the determination of the mean height of the sea along the Atlantic coastline). His activities also included aeronautics. At the University of Buenos Aires, in 1940, he gave a course on theoretical aeronautics; at the National University of La Plata, he set up a group to study problems of aviation engineering, and gave courses and seminars on elasticity theory, aerodynamics and technical aviation problems (among them the construction of landing strips). Indeed, one of the few articles that he published in Argentina was on aeronautics. This work, on aircraft propellers, originated in a conference given at the National University of La Plata on the 24th June 1937, and eventually came to form part of his course on aeronautics.
Juan Vigón had been a supporter of King Alfonso XIII and was in the Spanish army. He resigned in 1931 when the Second Republic was formed but returned to at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War becoming a general. After the end of the Civil War in 1939 he became Minister of the Air Force and, towards the end of 1941, he encouraged Terradas to return to Spain to use his expertise in aeronautical research. He returned and was appointed to the Chair of Mathematical Physics at the Faculty of Sciences in Madrid. We should note, however, that his colleagues in Argentina were unhappy that he cancelled plans in that country and left [11]:-
For a long period of time his friends in Argentina tried to recover him, without success, for what he called "his second country." These efforts involved an influential group of scientists, research technologists and institutions which at the time were at the forefront of Argentina's research movement.
Vigón founded the Instituto Nacional de Técnica Aeronáutica in 1942 and Terradas became the first president of its Board of Trustees. After his death in 1950 the National Institute of Aeronautical Technique was renamed Instituto Nacional de Técnica Aeroespacial "Esteban Terradas" in his honour. Together with Juan Vigón, he was a member of a working group set up to seek ways of developing a practical use of nuclear energy for Spain. The work of this group led to the setting up of the Nuclear Energy Board in 1951, a year after Terradas died.

Sixto Ríos writes in [19] about Terradas as a teacher:-
It is common that professors with extensive knowledge and great erudition in a subject do not know how to limit their exposition and mix major and secondary questions. On the contrary, D Esteban Terradas, who in Statistics, as in any other subject he explained, had a previous preparation in which he had exhausted the bibliographic sources, had not because of this lost the most precious pedagogical conditions of making his disciples clearly see the main paths, distinguishing them from the minor paths, and making them arrive and stop at the plateaus that allow a perfect contemplation of the scientific landscape that he had proposed to capture.
On 24 July 1985, Spain issued a 12 Spanish peseta stamp in honour of Esteban Terradas in their 'Famous People' series. See THIS LINK.

Let us end this biography by quoting from a speech that Terradas made on 11 May 1913 on the occasion when Paulino Castells y Vidal (1877-1956) entered the Spanish Academy of Sciences:-
We are today convinced that our principal mission is not teaching in the archaic sense; rather, our fundamental duty is the study and the advance of science. We represent the culture of the homeland, and decorum and duty make it imperative that study becomes our central occupation; the time is long gone when didactic quality was measured in terms of the meticulousness with which a teacher of mathematics made a transformation or progressed from one formula to another. Today ... the quality of teaching is measured according to the ideas of the teachers and how these reflect thinking in the great cultural centres, as also by the nature of the problems that an intelligent student is capable of resolving.

References (show)

  1. V Brotons, Review: Esteban Terradas: Ciencia y tecnica en la Espana contemporanea, by Antoni Roca Rosell and Jose Manuel Sanchez Ron, Isis 84 (1993), 422-23.
  2. E de Rafael, Esteban Terradas, Revista matemática hispanoamericana 11 (1) (1951), 4-16.
  3. Don Esteban Terradas Illa, La Vanguardia Espanola (10 May 1950), 12.
  4. C Garrica and P Pardo, Esteban Terradas y su discurso de ingreso en la RAE, in Cecilio Garriga Escribano (ed,) Lengua de la ciencia e historiografía (2016), 65-82.
  5. Esteban Terradas, La Vanguardia Espanola (28 August 1919), 4.
  6. Esteban Terradas, Center for History of Physics Newsletter XXXII (1) (2000).
  7. Esteve Terradas i Illa, Barcelona, September 15, 1883 - Madrid, May 10, 1950, Gran enciclopèdia catalana.
  8. E Fernández Galiano, Don Esteban Terradas, Boletín de la Real Academia Espanola 30 (130) (1950, 193-196.
  9. F A González Redondo, La reorganización de la Matemática en Espana tras la Guerra Civil. La posibilitación del retorno de Esteban Terradas y Julio Rey Pastor, La Gaceta de la Real Sociedad Matemática Espanola 5 (2) (2002), 463-490.
  10. G Millán Barbany, Un siglo de ingeniería espanola: Esteban Terradas, Ingeniería Aeronáutica y Astronáutica 248 (1983), 5-6.
  11. E L Ortiz, José Manuel Sánchez Ron and Antoni M Roca Rosell, Ciencia y técnica en Argentina y Espana (1941-1949) a través de la correspondencia de Julio Rey Pastor y Esteban Terradas, Llull: Revista de la Sociedad Espanola de Historia de las Ciencias y de las Técnicas 12 (22) (1989), 33-150.
  12. S M Pearson and J Canosa, Vivienda en Gauses, Girona: Esteban Terradas, Diseno interior 138 (2004), 106-113.
  13. M Perdomo Reyes, Review: Esteban Terradas. Ciencia y técnica en la Espana contemporánea by A Roca Rosell and José Manuel Sánchez, Arbor: Ciencia, pensamiento y cultura 143 (564) (1992), 126.
  14. P J Ramón Teijelo, La huella berciana de los ingenieros Juan de Subercase, Esteban Terradas, Jakob Hoeltz (Don Jacobo) y Marcelo Jorissen (el Belga), Estudios bercianos 39 (2015), 167-186.
  15. Redacción Revista Telefónica Española, Nombramiento del Director general de la Companía, Revista Telefónica Espanola 5 (12) (1929), 13-15.
  16. J Rey Pastor, Esteban Terradas, su vida y su obra, in Discursos pronunciados en la sesión necrológica en honor del Ecmo Sr D Esteban Terradas e Illa (Real Academia de Ciencias Exactas, Físicas y Naturales, Madrid, 1951), 35-49
  17. S Ríos García, Rasgos humanos de don Esteban Terradas, Boletín de la Sociedad Puig Adam de profesores de matemáticas 3 (1984), 19-30.
  18. S Ríos García, Esteban Terradas: algunas vivencias: sobre "Esteban Terradas. Ciencia y técnica en la España contemporánea", de Antonio Roca y JM Sánchez Ron, Saber leer 52 (1992): 3.
  19. S Ríos, D Esteban Terradas (1883-1950), Trabajos de Estadistica 1 (3) (1950), 52-55.
  20. A Roca Rosell and José Manuel Sánchez Ron, Esteban Terradas. Ciencia y técnica en la Espana contemporánea (Ediciones del Serbal, Madrid-Barcelona, 1990).
  21. A Roca Rosell, Esteban Terradas y el lenguaje científico y técnico, Pasaje a la Ciencia 11 (2008), 94-99.
  22. A Roca Rosell, Esteban Terradas en Argentina: algo más que una vinculación profesional, in Entre Argentina y España: unas historias matemáticas para el recuerdo (Sociedad Canaria Isaac Newton de Profesores de Matemáticas, 2003), 65-84.
  23. A Roca Rosell, Esteve Terradas i Illa. La Física técnica, in Ciencia i técnica als països catalans: una aproximació biográfica (Fundació Catalana per la Recerca, Barcelona, 1995), 1177-1207.
  24. A Roca Rosell (ed.), Esteban Terradas (Fundación Banco Exterior, Madrid, 1991).
  25. J Rosell and I Serra, Estudis d'Esteve Terradas sobre la volta de maó de pla, Cinquanta anys de Ciència i Tècnica a Catalunya. Entorn I'activitat científica d'E Terradas (1883-1950) (Institut d'Estudis Catalans, Barcelona, 1987), 23-33.
  26. J M Sánchez Ron, Esteban Terradas and Spanish technoscientific modernity, Contributions to science 2 (4) (2004), 551-563.
  27. J M Sánchez Ron, Esteban Terrades e Illa, Real Academia de la Historia (2018).
  28. E Terradas, Neologismos, arcaísmos y sinónimos en plática de ingenieros, discurso pronunciado el 13 de octubre de 1946 por Esteban Terradas, Boletín de Información Lingüística de la Real Academia Espanola 4 (2016), 1-150.

Additional Resources (show)

Other pages about Esteban Terradas:

  1. Miller's postage stamps

Cross-references (show)

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update March 2022