Human history is written with great architectural accomplishments, and there is no better way to get an idea of some old civilization than by looking at all the structures it left behind. Still, all those structures, like ancient pyramids, weren’t built on clouds, and if the soil they were built on hadn’t been examined and their foundations carefully prepared, they would eventually crumble and fall. We’ve heard enough about the people who built those structures. Let us now hear something about the people who made them eternal. Welcome to the short history of geotechnical engineering.
Today’s geotechnical engineering is considered to be a sub-discipline of civil engineering that focuses on natural materials found close to the Earth’s surface. One of geotechnical engineering’s main focuses is the application of soil mechanics and rock mechanics to the design of earth retaining walls and other structures and buildings. Although ancient civilizations weren’t aware of these scientific terms, some of their accomplishments indicate that they had a basic understanding of engineering principles. Namely, Ancient Greeks used strip-and-raft foundations and isolated pad footings for building their structures, while the Great Pyramids show that the Egyptians put great care into making foundations, examining the stability of slopes and construction of underground chambers.
Trial-and-Error and the Road to Scientific Method
Of course, not everyone of the historical structures is famous for its endurance. One of the most notable examples that proves that, although visionary, pre-scientific geotechnical engineering was deeply rooted in trial-and-error philosophy and lacked the full understanding of soil-bearing capacity is, of course, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. And then, there are Garisenda and Asinelli towers in Bologna, Italy that have tilted 4 and 1.3 degrees respectively. All these misfires forced scientists and architects to examine the properties and behavior of soil in a more methodical manner in the early 18th century.
Pre-Classical, Classical, and Modern Soil Mechanics
One of the first studies regarding slopes and unit weights of various types of soil was conducted in 1717 by a French Royal engineer Henri Gautier, and was later continued in 1729 by Bernard Forest de Belidor, who proposed a theory for lateral earth pressure in his textbook for engineering. The next two phases of the development of soil mechanics theory took place in the periods of 1776-1856 and 1856-1910 when a number of French and British scientists published their works regarding lateral earth pressure, bearing capacity, etc. The father of modern soil mechanics is considered to be an Austrian civil engineer Karl von Terzaghi, whose celebrated book Erdbaumechanik (published in 1925) and later works cover a wide range of topics, such as shear strength, consolidation, centrifuge testing, effective stress, etc.
Modern Days and the Foundations for the Future
These days, geotechnical engineering makes an integral part of civil engineering, and professional geotechnical engineering consultants are there to conduct a soil investigation whenever some building, tunnel, dam, dike or any kind of structure is built. One of the most notable contemporary wonders of the world, whose construction wouldn’t be possible without the understanding of soil mechanics and other principles of geotechnical engineering is Burj Khalifa built in Dubai 2010. But, modern problems of geotechnical engineering do not lay only in making higher buildings and longer tunnels. In a world where socio-political, economic, and business topics are inseparable, environmental issues become more evident with each passing day, and engineers, in general, assume the role of the stewards of the world, so the challenges ahead of geotechnical engineers are harder than ever. One of the most important of them will be not only reacting to, but anticipating the problems and finding ethical solutions to them.
As we can see, the history of geotechnical engineering is almost as old as humanity itself. Their future is inseparable. As long as there are buildings to be built and soil these buildings should be built on, geotechnical engineers will be there to make sure these buildings will see the centuries to come.