Finding Einstein on the Enoree

SCS Lab on the Enoree River


The Enoree River was not easy to find in the center of everything. The river flows seventy miles from our border with North Carolina to its confluence with the Broad river above Columbia. Today I was a stone’s throw from the largest airport in the Upstate South Carolina. I could hear the interstate in the distance that binds the southeast, but I didn’t see anyone.

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All I saw were two trailers perched on top of a bare piedmont hill. They were overlooking a self-storage lot that had seen better days. The sun was setting as I parked my car facing a rusted cattle gate. Was this private property? I suppose, but I was on a mission and didn’t have much time. It was going to get dark soon. I jumped the gate and I picked my way through a field of briars until I could hear the sound of the river. I reached a stand of older trees which kept the briars at bay. 

Was this the forgotten place where Hans Albert Einstein worked?

So, who was Han’s Albert Einstein?

He was a civil engineer and educator best known for his research on sediment transport. Also, he just happened to be the second child and first son of Albert Einstein. He was born in Bern, Switzerland in 1904 and followed his father’s footsteps and studied at ETH, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Zurich, Switzerland. He obtained the doctor of technical science degree in 1936. His doctoral thesis on sediment bed load transport is considered by many as a definitive work. Hans represented a new generation of researchers.

Many researchers in the early 19th century characterized rivers as wild and untamed beasts; home to trial and error empirical equations. They thought there were just too many complexities with water and sediment movement in rivers and canals to attempt a mechanics based approach. Bed sediment at the bottom of the river is never static, but alive and always moving. Researchers were struggling how to calculate sediment movement and it’s relationship with flow.

Why was this important? Knowledge of how a river will deposit or erode is important especially with any modification of a river, such as a dam. For example, a dam can affect the sediment load of the stream as the reservoir traps sediment. This can result in channel instability downstream of a dam as the channel and banks are eroded to satisfy the sediment carrying capacity of the waters.

The desire to understand sediment transport better led Hans Albert to South Carolina.

A Sediment-Sensing River Fitbit

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After some help from Dad, the Soil Conservation Service (SCS ) offered Hans a position to work at a new facility it had built in South Carolina. Hans Albert and his family moved to America and came to the lab in July 1938.

The SCS lab was a sediment sensing Fitbit for a river that could measure the entire sediment load of a river. No one had measured bedload on an entire river before. By measuring the bedload of an entire river, SCS hoped to figure out how sediment load varies with river flow.

The lab was designed to measure the sediment load with slots in the river bed in each of the concrete bays. Lab staff could open individual slots and pump the river and sediment from each bay to a settling tank on the side of the river. The staff could collect and weigh the sediment from the tank.  They could also determine the particle-size distribution of the sediment. Staff returned water back to the river through a flume as shown in the above picture.

Hans lived in Greenville, SC, and worked at the lab for over five years. The lab expanded the body of knowledge of sediment transport. For example, the term “wash load” was born in this lab. Wash load defines just the fine clay silt particles part of the bed load that moves at different rates.

There was a problem. It was a problem you could not control with concrete or different measuring devices. There was only enough river flow to produce results two to three times a year. Also, the river flow changed faster than they could accurately measure. As a result of this and competing demands during World War II, the government abandoned the lab. Although Hans Albert moved with SCS to California, this experience helped him become a respected authority on sediment transport.

The lab today

After reading about this lab I wondered if it was still here. If it was there, what shape was it in? Articles suggested it was about 14 miles southeast of Greenville on the Enoree River. One night I scanned the river looking for the concrete bays in the river on Google Earth. Crazy night, huh. After about 30 minutes, I found my evidence.

It was not until I was there and looked through the trees into the river, I knew I had found the lab. The concrete matched the one photo I had seen of the facility. I didn’t have time to go all bubbazen out there. It was getting cold and I was not quite ready to test my excuses with any landowner of why I was standing here. I had to leave.

Overlooking the remnants of the 80-year-old lab one last time,  I realized that Einstein even with a modern-day GPS probably could not find the lab today. So much of the landscape has changed in eighty years.  

A river gives, takes and protects. In this case, the river protects the lab as a monument to our never-ending quest for discovery. A quest that sometimes refuses to be buried as a footnote in a college textbook.


If anyone is interested in learning more about Hans Albert Einstein,  I read an excellent well-researched book titled “Hans Albert Einstein: Life of a Pioneer in River Engineering” by Robert Ettema and Cornelia F. Mutel