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The Cooling Prize Competition: The first 50 years

Last night saw Harry Postill awarded with Cooling Prize on the 50th anniversary of the event but why was the event created? Christine Cooling explains the origins of the award that honour her father.

leonard cooling dr leonard cooling (photograph courtesy of christine cooling)

leonard cooling dr leonard cooling

Source: Christine Cooling

Cooling chaired the panel of judges until his death in 1977

In the late 1960s, when the British Geotechnical Society’s (BGS) committee was discussing the most appropriate way to spend money which had accrued from the sale of conference proceedings, the suggestion of a gold medal was greeted – legend has it – by a resounding raspberry from the youth representative. He was, therefore, deputed to prepare his alternative proposal and, of course, the youth representative being John Burland, his persuasive advocacy ensured the unanimous agreement of the committee to delay investment in a medal and endorse the proposal of a prize for a young engineer following a competition.

The meeting also agreed unanimously that the new prize should be named for Leonard Cooling in recognition of his well-known encouragement and help to younger members of the profession.

The first competition was held at the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) in 1970 and during the first six years Cooling chaired the panel of judges. IT was an occasion in which he took enormous pleasure until his early death in 1977.

From then on, the competition final became peripatetic visiting universities and local associations throughout the country, only returning to the ICE on the occasion of its 25th anniversary in 1995.

In 1986 Barry Boden (who was at that time my boss in geotechnics at the Building Research Station), became chairman of the BGS. Possibly because he was conscious of his unfamiliarity with the early history of soil mechanics in this country and the traditional routine of the Cooling Prize Competition, “invited” me to attend the next competition. He asked me to give a short talk of the competition’s origins, speak on the early days of soil mechanics and present the prizes at the next event to be held at Bath University. Pleased and flattered, I jumped at the chance and the BGS – now the British Geotechnical Association (BGA) – has been kind enough to put up with me ever since.

In those days the competitors had to be under 27 years of age and the emphasis was on encouragement and the development of skill in the presentation of technical data. The winners usually chose to spend their prize money on text books. Now the prizes have become more lavish and the age limit has been raised to 33 to include more mature professionals.

Over the years as technology has developed, the visual aids used by the candidates have become more polished and professional. In earlier times the overhead projectors often proudly displayed a graph paper drawn by the candidate’s wife by hand and projected by her. However, the important things don’t change – the enthusiasm of the finalists for their work, the genuine interest and support of senior members of the profession and, most of all, the contacts and friendships formed during and after the event.

I have to apologise that, sadly, over the years my memory of individual meetings and incidents has become hazy, but I am able to retrieve a few highlights. For example, the problem we had getting one candidate’s long instrumented experimental probe through customs en route to Belfast too soon after the Troubles. Our Belfast hosts later took us on a civil engineering tour of the rebuilding work in their city – an innovation which sadly no other event has subsequently copied.

It was not until 1988, in Newcastle, that Victoria Hope became the first woman to win the Cooling Prize although women had submitted papers and become finalists since the 1970s. To date there have been eight further women winners.

Candidates journey from all over the UK to attend the event and despite a variety of hazards including strikes, landslips and electrical faults on the railways and adverse weather conditions, such as last year’s “Beast from the East” which complicated our journeys to Manchester. Despite all this not one finalist has failed to make it. Engineers are a resourceful lot.

The memories which do remain very clear to me are the high standards of the work and presentations submitted and the dedication of our hosts and the various panels of judges.

On a personal note I would like to thank the BGA for its generosity in enabling me to maintain the close family link with this competition which meant so much to my father.

The occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Cooling Prize in 2019, and the fact that I am now 85 years old seems an appropriate time for me to retire, albeit regretfully; I feel very privileged and grateful to have been associated with the competition for so many years.

Past Cooling Prize Papers published by GE, can be found here.


List of winners of the Cooling Prize


Harry Postill, Loughborough University


Joe Newhouse, Mott MacDonald


Francesc Mirada, Arup


Helen Dunne, University of Oxford


William Beuckelaers, University of Oxford


Katherine Jones, Dunelm Geotechnical & Environmental


Frederick Levy, National Grid / University of Southampton


Jonathan Dewsbury, Buro Happold


Gabrielle Wojtowitz, University of Southampton


Kevin Briggs, University of Southampton


Alice Berry, Arup


Esteban Litvdis, Atkins


Mei Cheong, Mott MacDonald


Dave Edwards, Imperial College London


Keith Emmett, Sheffield University


Dimitrios Selematas, Cambridge University


Alistair Hitchcock, University of Southampton


Felix Schroeder, Imperial College London


Fleur Loveridge, Babtie Group


Andreas Frangoulides, Cambridge University


Antoine Andrei, Kvaerner Cementation Foundations


Archie Mundegar, Ove Arup and Partners


Judith Harvey, Cambridge University


Edward Ellis, Cambridge University


Fiona Chow, Imperial College London


Trevor Addenbrooke, Imperial College London


Paul Gildea, Mott MacDonald


Darren Russell, Mott MacDonald


No Cooling Prize was held


Carl Erbrich, Earl & Wright


Sarah Stallebrass, City University


Vicki Hope, University of Surrey and Wimpey Laboratories


Neil Dixon, Kingston Polytechnic


Tom Henderson, University of Oxford


Nicholas Mettyear


William Hewlett


Roger Finn


Richard Harris, Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick


Matthew Symes


Paul Martins, Imperial College London


Ken Been, University of Oxford


Derek Morris, Cambridge University


Clive Williams, University of Plymouth


Nigel John, University of Portsmouth


Mark Randolph, Building Research Establishment/Cambridge University


Duncan Nicholson, George Wimpey & Co


Nicholas Withers


Eddie Bromhead, Imperial College London/Ove Arup & Partners


John Endicott, University of Cambridge


Howard Roscoe, Rendel Palmer & Tritton

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