As Kingston University’s Professor Eddie Bromhead prepares to deliver this year’s Glossop Lecture he talks to Claire Symes about his unexpected career in soil mechanics and his views on education.
As this issue of GE went to press, Professor Eddie Bromhead was expected to take the stage at the Royal Geographical Society to deliver the 12th Glossop Lecture in front of a record audience.
This level of interest in his work on landslides still seems to surprise 63-year-old Bromhead, despite notching up more than 40 years’ experience in the soil mechanics sector.
This modesty is not born from lack of understanding of his subject - landslides is a subject that clearly enthuses him - but more from surprise about where his career has led him despite a challenging start.
Bromhead’s father was an officer in the Army and as a consequence he ended up spending his childhood moving from place to place.
“We only stayed in some places for three months, so I never expected to do anything academic as a career,” he says.
One of the places he did get to stay for a while was Pembroke, close to where his mother’s family originated.
“If you are going to go into the Army during peacetime then you need to follow a technical route”
Relatives from there had connections in Portsmouth. So when Bromhead got better-than-expected A-level results he applied to Portsmouth Polytechnic to study civil engineering.
“I was inspired to study civil engineering after seeing the Severn Bridge under construction in the mid 1960s,” he says.
He did not follow his father’s military path as he says being a peacetime soldier was a very different experience to the career his father had followed.
“If you are going to go into the Army during peacetime then you need to follow a technical route,” he says. “I just didn’t fancy mechanical engineering.”
According to Bromhead, the 1960s was a time when a lot of inspiring engineering was under way and the motorway network was beginning to emerge.
He went to Portsmouth with the aim of pursuing a career in structures, but experiences soon after graduation changed the course of not just his career path, but also his approach to business.
“I landed a job with Severn Bridge designer Freeman Fox & Partners when I graduated but I hated it,” he says. “I was involved in a lot of geometric calculations for elements of bridges.”
Things came to a head when Bromhead was asked to design a concrete pour sequence for the West Gate Bridge in Melbourne over the Yarra River.
“I kept trying to find a solution but in the end I concluded it was impossible and I went to talk to the design engineer,” he says.
“I may have been a little outspoken given the early stage of my career but I ended up telling the engineer that his design was rubbish and ended up leaving the company.”
Change of tack
This period signalled a change of tack for Bromhead and he asked his former Portsmouth Polytechnic lecturer Bill Hodges for a reference for a job working in soil mechanics.
It was after he joined Arup and got involved in designing solutions for the Herne Bay landslides that the news broke that the West Gate Bridge had collapsed during construction.
The accident in 1970 killed 35 construction workers and was later attributed to the structural design by Freeman Fox and the unusual construction methods used by World Services & Construction.
“It was a very sad turn of events but since then I have become blunter with people if I think there is a problem and will speak to the national media if I don’t believe a problem is being taken seriously,” he explains.
This approach has led to Bromhead appearing as an expert witness for a number of arbitrations and other court cases.
He also worked with Rofe, Kennard & Lapworth (now part of Arup) to report on the Karsington Dam project in 1984. He says the project was clearly in trouble and they forecast its failure before the inevitable happened
Bromhead established himself as an up-and-coming star in the geotechnical industry when he won the Cooling Prize in 1972 - the third time the event had been run - PeterRoth, Arthur Penman and Dr Leonard Cooling were on the judging panel.
“Through working on the Herne Bay scheme I met both Alan Bishop and John Hutchinson and did a lot of background reading on the subject of soil mechanics,” he says.
This period was also the early days of computer modelling and Bromhead also tried his hand at this. “I started in the days when computers meant mainframes, tapes and punch cards,” he says.
He created his own programs for analysis then and still does today as well as running courses for Thomas Telford on the subject.
It was this interest in computer modelling that led him into the field of finite element analysis and hooked him back into the world of academia.
“In my opinion a PhD is too academic and too specialist when it comes to teaching”
In 1971 Bromhead embarked on a master’s degree in soil mechanics at Imperial and was taught by the likes of Sir Alec Skempton, Hutchinson and Bishop.
He says studying under these big names in geotechnics was fascinating. Bishop offered him a PhD post at the end of the course but he turned it down.
“When I finished my MSc I was determined to go back into industry and I rejoined Arup for a while before moving to another role,” he says. “I decided to find a post in a polytechnic and do my PhD on the side and it wasn’t long before I joined Kingston’s civil engineering department.”
Bromhead completed his PhD on aspects of seepage at Imperial in 1981 while lecturing at Kingston.
“Gaining an MSc was a great basis for teaching and I could teach anything on the undergraduate course,” he says. “In my opinion a PhD is too academic and too specialist when it comes to teaching. Today people with a PhD have to opt for research or practice before becoming a lecturer and there are benefits and disadvantages to both - the research route attracts funding for the department but these individuals often lack professional nous or professional membership. Those who practice bring independent experience.”
Bromhead has strong feelings about secondary education too.
“When I think about my own contemporaries as a student, I like to think that we were a bright bunch, but those who didn’t have a grammar school education couldn’t catch up on what they’d missed by going through the comprehensive system.”
While Bromhead has been a fixture at Kingston for 40 years, he has not restricted his work to the lecture theatre. “In the 1980s we were asked to put in bids for research budgets, so I put in a bid for a rotary drill rig - and to my surprise, I got it!” he says. “We only used it for research purposes, not for commercial operations, but we cored to 85m on one site.”
He concedes that this is unusual in academia and describes himself as “a bit eccentric”.
His practical approach to problems also led to him designing his own ring shear machine and helping Smith Industries redesign its spark plug design.
“It may not sound closely related to soil mechanics but called for finite element analysis,” he says. “They had a problem with the ceramic on the plugs breaking and wrecking engines, so I used stress analysis to redesign it and it led to a new spark plug design for jet engines too.”
“It is a real honour to follow in the footsteps of Evert Hoek and Dick Chandler”
Despite this wide-ranging career, it is clear that landslides still have the potential to spark Bromhead’s interest and he was delighted to be asked to present the Glossop Lecture this year.
“It is a real honour to follow in the footsteps of Evert Hoek and Dick Chandler,” he says. His lecture on bedding controlled landslips looks at why some horizons are more susceptible than others.
Although many may see this as the culmination of his career, he believes there is plenty more to say on the subject and he is currently submitting papers for the Banff
Conference on landslides in Canada next June. He also has some books planned on the subject.
Bromhead is also about to take up the post of senior editor on the “Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology” (QJEG) and that is something he is particularly looking forward to. “My first published paper appeared in the QJEG in 1978,” he says.
Despite a career in soil mechanics spanning more than 40 years, Bromhead is not finished with the subject just yet.
We need to learn a lesson or two about education
Looking at current undergraduate and post graduate academic training programmes for engineers, Bromhead believes there isn’t enough structure.
“When I studied at Portsmouth, we had 13-week terms and in the final year we studied 10 subjects with exams spread over a two-week period,” he explains. “Now terms are shorter and with less lecture time - only 11 weeks are actually taught per semester.
In the 1990s there was a trend towards expecting students to do more personal study to make up for the reduction in lectures, but many don’t undertake this.”
Bromhead questions whether this is really enough to qualify students to BEng level. “We are short-changing people,” he says.
“It is brilliant when a youngster grasps a concept and it is that which has kept me in this job”
“Students studying somewhere like Cambridge are capable of teaching themselves but others need more intensive structured study in order to get on. The more intensive approach of Portsmouth in the late 1960s really suited me. It made me concentrate and get on. Engineering students need the hard study, field trips and lots of calculations.”
Bromhead also has mixed feelings about the new funding structure for undergraduates.
“This year’s intake will have debts when they finish but they are not huge,” he says. “The 2012 intake with £9,000-a-year fees will have more than double the level of debt at the end of their course. The system will only work if the students do pay back the loans.”
He clearly enjoys passing on his knowledge. “It is brilliant when a youngster grasps a concept and it is that which has kept me in this job,” he says. “There is something very satisfying in helping to create someone who is useful to society.”