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Appliance of science

Ground Engineering looks briefly at the development of geotechnical practice in Britain.

By the time the British Geotechnical Society was inaugurated in 1949, there were 15 soil mechanics laboratories operating in Great Britain. Of these, three were government establishments, five were attached to universities, two belonged to consulting engineers, but five belonged to contracting firms.

In fact, the first laboratory set up after the government's major duo, Building Research Station and Road Research Laboratory, was established by a contractor, John Mowlem.

Mowlem's Rudolph Glossop, later director of Soil Mechanics, noted retrospectively: 'It is quite certain that this laboratory, for at least five years, occupied a unique position between the government research establishments on the one hand and the civil engineering industry on the other, so that a branch of engineering science which might have remained a relatively academic pursuit for much longer, was plunged into practical engineering, and contracting at that.'

The early development of geotechnology was nevertheless, according to Glossop, a strange occurrence, 'in that contractors had suddenly developed an enthusiasm for what was then an esoteric branch of engineering science.'

Glossop personally was less surprised, as he had already come to view what the French called les procedes geotechniques as 'a system of logically related techniques within a well defined body of engineering practice', although in UK at this time such activities were still regarded as 'particular solutions to particular cases'.

But all this was to change with the now well-known story of Chingford Dam (see box) which gave rise to John Mowlem setting up of a small soils laboratory.

Again Glossop's observations on the operation of this new facility make fascinating reading. 'It is difficult to imagine the situation,' he said. 'There was no adequate textbook in the English language and the proceedings of the first international conference at Harvard were unobtainable. There was no standard practice and one designed one's own apparatus and got it made as best one could.'

However the Mowlem laboratory was soon handling work from other firms and by 1943 Soil Mechanics Ltd had been formed to run it. Over the next few years several others firms of contractors followed suit.

These early pioneers did much to drive developments not only in the practice of geotechnics, but also the science and this approach continued until relatively recently. It is significant that the first two Rankine Lecturers to come from outside academia were Glossop himself in 1968, and subsequently Alan Meigh also of Soil Mechanics, in 1976.

According to Peter Gee, current marketing director of Soil Mechanics' parent ESG (still part of the Mowlem Group), it was not until the late 1970s that the company's priorities changed from science to business and issues such as providing a quality yet cost effective and profitable service, started to override the technical and scientific.

Geotechnical consultancy by comparison to contracting is a much more recent phenomena. It was not until the mid to late 1960s that geotechnical design, particularly foundation design, began to be undertaken by companies that identified themselves as geotechnical consultants. Before that time, such work was almost always carried out by site investigation contractors.

Ove Arup & Partners was one of the pioneers in this respect, setting up one of the first specialist geotechnical groups in 1964. The group rapidly grew in size to carry out desk studies and site investigation design, mainly to drive towards more economical foundations in response to over-conservative designs being adopted through minimal site investigations. The move also coincided with dramatic increases in foundation loads with the advent of multistorey buildings and deep basements.

The group had a policy of recruiting young geotechnical engineers from academia, generally postgraduate researchers from leading universities, allowing them to blend their ideas and training with those of a more practical engineering background. The success of the department was soon recognised by other consultants who soon set up their own departments along similar lines.

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