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Great Engineers & Scientists

In 1676, Sir Isaac Newton wrote "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants." In this blog, we take Newton's words to heart, and recognize the many great engineers and scientists upon whose shoulders we stand.

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Sir Alec Skempton: A Founding Father of Soil Mechanics

Posted October 11, 2012 12:00 AM by SavvyExacta
Pathfinder Tags: Alec Skempton soil mechanics

Alec Skempton devoted his life to research in the newly created field of soil mechanics in the mid-20th century. He was born on June 4, 1914 and was knighted in the Millennium Honours list in 2000.

Education

Skempton graduated with a degree in civil engineering with first class honors from Imperial College in 1935. By his junior year in college he'd already dedicated his life to research. Early on his research focused on reinforced concrete and this led to his position at the Building Research Station (BRS).

Soil Mechanics at the Building Research Station

By 1937 Skempton turned his concentration from concrete to soil mechanics. The Chingford Dam in Essex collapsed while under construction just a few months into Skempton's career at BRS. He investigated the cause for the collapse and determined it was due to incomplete consolidation of the alluvial clay foundations. Previous dams had been constructed using horse-and-cart technology which allowed time for consolidation. This time around a mechanized plant had been used.

Return to Academia

In 1947 he returned to Imperial College as a reader of soil mechanics. He was awarded a DSc from the University of London in 1949. Skempton went on to be a professor of soil mechanics and civil engineering at the University of London until his retirement.

Skempton authored many technical papers including some on the topics of:

  • Geotechnical properties of post-glacial clays
  • Properties of a range of different clays
  • Slope stability
  • Residual strength as a fundamental property dependent on the mineralogy of the soil

Skempton served on numerous committees in which he had an immediate interest:

  • The Institution of Civil Engineers (Vice President from 1974-1976)
  • Newcomen Society (President from 1977-1979)
  • Cathedrals Advisory Board (Member from 1964-1970)
  • Natural Environmental Research Council (Member from 1973-1976)
  • Architectural Association (Special Lecturer from 1948-1957)
  • Cambridge University School of Architecture (Visiting Lecturer in 1976)

Skempton consulted on many dam projects during his career. A biographical dictionary of early civil engineers was the main project during the last five years of his life. He continued working until a few months before his death on August 9, 2001.

Resources:

Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society - Sir Alec Westley Skempton. 4 June 1914 - 9 August 2001.

Obituary - Alec Westley Skempton (1914-2001)

Wikipedia - Alec Skempton

World Wide Web of Geotechnical Engineers Hall of Fame - Alec Westley Skempton [image]

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