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A bit of geotechnical history: Martin Preene

Innovation and new methods of modeling and analysis are fundamental to our development as geotechnical professionals. But, there is no denying that experience (both good and bad) is key to career and technical development.

Martin preene

Martin is vice chairman of the BGA and principal at Preene Groundwater Consulting

Learning the lessons from your own experience is an obvious step, but I am a great believer in looking at history and previous projects, and learning from them too.

As the eminent civil and geotechnical engineer Sir Harold Harding once said: “Every civil engineer, however academically endowed, has to start his practical career in a state of ignorance and then gradually accumulate experience. The lessons learned from the past are not always out of date so an intelligent interest in the antics of his predecessors can speed up the process.”

Harding is an interesting character, a civil engineer by first training, who was personally instrumental in introducing specialist grouting techniques and pumped construction dewatering techniques to the UK via a licensing agreement that the UK civil engineering contractor Mowlem had with the German company Siemens Bau-Union.

While well known in the tunnelling and civil engineering fraternity, Harding probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves for shaping early geotechnical practice in the UK.

As well as his hands-on experience with grouting and dewatering he was a founder director of Soil Mechanics (probably the world’s first geotechnical specialist firm) and he was mentor to Hugh Golder, another influential figure through his early editorship of Géotechnique, his role as managing director in the early years of Soil Mechanics, and the formation of Golder Associates, a global consulting firm that has been around for more than 50 years.

I was reminded of Harding’s role in geotechnics in the UK when I recently read his autobiography It’s Warmer Down Below. This has some fascinating stuff in it, related to Harding’s work on extending the Tube in 1930s, major works in London and war work during the Blitz.

The technical details are interesting, but the personal side gives an insight to the time, such as Harding’s unease when visiting Germany to be trained in grouting and dewatering during the period of the rise of the Nazis in the late 1930s. Harding’s later work is also covered, including his work on the 1960s and 1970s – ultimately abortive – stages of the Channel Tunnel, and his role on the tribunal for the Aberfan Disaster of 1966 – a tragedy that changed the way that mining and quarrying wastes are managed in the UK.

Harding’s biography is a good example of several recent books that have become available describing the history of key British geotechnical individuals or firms. A particularly interesting one is Ron Williams’ book Rudolph Glossop and the Rise of Geotechnology. Glossop was a contemporary of Harding and another alumni of Mowlem and Soil Mechanics.

This is another record of an eclectic collection of experience from the 1920s through to the 1970s. There are some good anecdotes in there, but the one that sticks in the mind is when Glossop took over as the manager on a gold mine in West Africa that had been in abeyance for several years. After arriving at the mine after travelling by sea and overland for several weeks, when clearing the site Glossop discovered the grave of his predecessor as manager, and had reason to believe that he had died after being poisoned by the workforce! The next time you are having a bad day on site, think about this and it might put your problems into perspective.

Martin Preene is vice Chairman of the BGA and is principal at Preene Groundwater Consulting

  • It’s Warmer Down Below: The Autobiography of Sir Harold Harding, 1900-1986 was edited by Amanda Davey and published by Tilia Publishing UK
  • Rudolph Glossop and the Rise of Geotechnology by Ron Williams is published by Whittles Publishing

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