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This article in SSSAJ

  1. Vol. 69 No. 2, p. 328-342
    Received: Aug 16, 2004

    * Corresponding author(s): jrnimmo@usgs.gov


The Soil Physics Contributions of Edgar Buckingham

  1. John R. Nimmo *a and
  2. Edward R. Landab
  1. a U. S. Geological Survey, MS-421, 345 Middlefield Road, Menlo Park, CA 94025
    b U.S. Geological Survey, MS-430,12201 Sunrise Valley Drive, Reston, VA 20192


During 1902 to 1906 as a soil physicist at the USDA Bureau of Soils (BOS), Edgar Buckingham originated the concepts of matric potential, soil–water retention curves, specific water capacity, and unsaturated hydraulic conductivity (K) as a distinct property of a soil. He applied a formula equivalent to Darcy's law (though without specific mention of Darcy's work) to unsaturated flow. He also contributed significant research on quasi-empirical formulas for K as a function of water content, water flow in capillary crevices and in thin films, and scaling. Buckingham's work on gas flow in soils produced paradigms that are consistent with our current understanding. His work on evaporation elucidated the concept of self-mulching and produced sound and sometimes paradoxical generalizations concerning conditions that favor or retard evaporation. Largely overshadowing those achievements, however, is that he launched a theory, still accepted today, that could predict transient water content as a function of time and space. Recently discovered documents reveal some of the arguments Buckingham had with BOS officials, including the text of a two-paragraph conclusion of his famous 1907 report on soil water, and the official letter documenting rejection of that text. Strained interpersonal relations motivated the departure of Buckingham and other brilliant physicists (N.E. Dorsey, F.H. King, and Lyman Briggs) from the BOS during 1903 to 1906. Given that Buckingham and his BOS colleagues had been rapidly developing the means of quantifying unsaturated flow, these strained relations probably slowed the advancement of unsaturated flow theory.

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