Ingenious: The Rainmaker
When international hydrology experts visit the University of Illinois, they often look for the “mighty” Boneyard Creek. They’re shocked to discover that it’s a tiny waterway winding through campus and
“not much larger than a typical drainage ditch,” writes Marcelo H. Garcia in The University of Illinois: Engine of Innovation.
Boneyard Creek’s notoriety stems from Ven Te Chow’s landmark Handbook of Applied Hydrology, published in 1964 and still quoted today. As Garcia notes, “Generations of students have learned from the hydrologic observations Chow and his stu- dents made in Boneyard Creek.”
Chow, a U of I professor of civil engineering, was a giant in the field of hydrology and hydraulics until his death in 1981 at age 61. In addition to writing three major books, he did pioneering research and traveled the world as a water systems consultant. Chow also spearheaded the construction of the Hydrosystems Laboratory on campus—one of the nation’s premier hydraulic research labs. Completed in 1970, it now carries his name.
Born in Hangzhou, China, in 1919, Chow left the mainland in 1947 during the country’s civil war. After completing his Ph.D. at Illinois in 1950, he joined the faculty as a professor of civil engineering.
During the 1950s, Chow focused on how water moves in open channels. “If you have irrigation, you have to build canals and water-transportation devices,” says David R. Maidment, MS ’74 ENG, PHD ’76 ENG, professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin and a former student under Chow. “But how big should the channel be? If it’s on a slope, how much water will be transported?” Chow answered that question and many others. In the 1960s, he researched how water travels across the landscape throughout an entire watershed, beginning with rainfall. He installed one of the country’s first rainfall simulators, an innovative, computer-controlled system that creates indoor rainstorms. (It was featured in Life magazine.) He was also the founder and first president of the International Water Resources Association.
Chow did not visit China again until 1974, where he was welcomed with open arms. According to Maidment, after Chow gave a lecture in Beijing, 300 people traveled to Shanghai to hear the same lecture again.
In 2019, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, where Chow received his bachelor’s degree, held a celebration honoring the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Source: “Hydrologist, Educator and Rainmaker,” by Marcelo H. Garcia, The Engine of Innovation, University of Illinois Press, 2017.