Tribute to an engineering master
Tribute to an engineering master Oct 2010
Shani Wallis, TunnelTalk
A panel of his peers and colleagues paid tribute to the life and times of Sir Alan Muir Wood at the symposium organised by the British Tunnelling Society (BTS) yesterday (Thursday 21st October) at the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) in Great George Street, London. In their presentations, the programme of speakers referred frequently to how Sir Alan had influenced their work, had contributed to the advancement of civil engineering, in particular to tunnelling and coastal engineering, and had in large measure shaped the international appreciation and understanding of tunnelling through his work with the International Tunnelling Association (ITA) and his association with some of the world's most significant engineering projects including the Channel Tunnel between England and France and the Øresund immersed tube and bridge link between Denmark and Sweden. Sir Alan's prowess as a prolific letter writer and commentator on all things that exercised his attention, often engineering and tunnelling, but also political and social developments, was remembered and his interest in research and development of new techniques and methods as well as his mentoring of young students and new engineers to the civil engineering industry was celebrated.

Sir Alan Muir Wood 1921 - 2009

The full day programme, presided over by Bob Ibell, Chairman of the BTS, started with a review of Sir Alan's contribution to civil engineering by ICE President, Paul Jowitt, remembering him in equal esteem as great British contemporary engineers including Sir Harold Harding and James Clarke.
Professor Robert Mair of Cambridge University presented case histories of tunnelling and geotechnics and introduced the audience to several research projects being undertaken at the University including the development of fiber optics in the process of monitoring movement caused by tunnelling on surface and underground structures. This he said would have entertained Sir Alan's keen interest in the development of the new and potentially defining.
Martin Knights, Past President of the ITA, described Sir Alan's leading role in the foundation of the international association in the early 1970s and his continuing interest in its development and work through the following years as its Honorary Life President.
The Association has grown significantly to now 62 member nations and has expanded its global activities through its Working Groups, Committees, Foundations and status as a non-governmental organisation of the United Nations. Sir Alan last addressed the ITA delegation at the 2002 General Assembly and Congress in Sydney.
Professor John Burland of Imperial College told of his work and mathematical discussions with Sir Alan in addressing "the paradox of the Gaussian subsidence trough" - why in materials of high kο stresses does the ground around the tunnel squat?
Touching on a subject that consumed a great deal of attention by Sir Alan in his later years, Andy Alder of Halcrow gave a presentation on design of underground structures from planning through construction to use. Sir Alan was of the strong opinion that projects should be fully designed before they are tendered for construction and that the consultant designer should manage and supervise that project and contract through construction representing the client as The Engineer. One of his last of many books, titled Tunnelling: Management by Design (2000), states clearly and for the record Sir Alan's views on the subject.
John Curtis spoke of the Curtis-Muir Wood formulae for tunnel design – evolution, use and validation, stating that the formulae was developed for confirming the design of the segments for the Channel Tunnel project and that while the formulae is known as the Curtis-Muir Wood formulae and still used widely around the world, the calculations were his and agreement of their validity belonged to Sir Alan.
Rodney Craig, Colin Warren, and John Sharp presented personal tributes to Sir Alan and two special presentations were delivered by Sir Alan's sons, Robert and David.
Robert, who works in the field of risk management solutions, presented a fascinating presentation titled 'More honoured in the breach – modelling catastrophic consequences of coastal defence failures'. Case histories used to illustrate the theme including the breach of the levies in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and the recent failure of the toxic tailings dam in Hungary as well as earlier dam and dyke failures.
Son David gave the most entertaining and revealing insight into Sir Alan's nature through recitation of a selection of the many, many letters, notes and papers that he wrote - some published by newspapers and magazines and other not. Sir Alan's wit and forthright manner shone through the texts, as did his love of the English language and ability as a communicator, and David's delivery had the audience hearing the sound of Sir Alan himself. Through the letters, Sir Alan's endless objection to the description of the observational method of tunnelling being known as NATM or the New Austrian Tunnelling Method was confirmed, an objection that he took every opportunity to iterate that the concept was "not new, not Austrian, and not a method."

Sir Alan at the 2002 ITA Congress

During the buffet lunch and coffee breaks the comments by attendees spoke collectively of the special nature of the event and remarked on how it pulled both ends of different spectra together. The audience of more than 150 included contemporary engineers of Sir Alan and notable members of the British tunnelling fraternity, including John Bartlett, Tony Ridley, Alastair Biggart, David Fawcett, Ged Pakes, among others, as well as young members to the industry and students attracted by the very reasonable registration fee of just £50 for the day. It combined very technical presentations, involving calculus and mathematics, with the light hearted and human connection, and addressed engineering from the formulation and planning of new ideas and projects through the design, construction, and on to end use, maintenance and repair. During the presentations and during private discussions in the breaks, Sir Alan was remembered with adjectives and phases including open, creative, innovative, encouraging, direct, acerbic, entertaining, determined, withering in his opinions and always eager for debate. One of Sir Alan's last public appearances before he died was at the British Tunnelling Society in December 2008 when he joint the panel on the proposing side to debate the motion "This House believes: Tunnelling contracts are best implemented based on a detailed design procured by the client before tendering the construction contract." - a topic close to his heart and a motion that was narrowly defeated by the show of hands vote.
Sir Alan died in February 2009 and his legacy as one of the greats in the field of engineering, particularly tunnelling, and his standing as an overall man of great influence, was reinforced by the proceedings and convening of yesterday's symposium. It will be with great appreciation that the PowerPoint slides of all the presentations will be made available on the BTS website in due course.
The evening ended with a commemorative dinner in the ballroom of the ICE building, a place that was so familiar to Sir Alan as a past President of the Institution, Chairman of the BTS and active member of both.
Sir Alan Obituary - TunnelTalk, Feb 2009
ITA 2010 Assembly and Congress report Vancouver report - TunnelTalk, May 2010
ITA Presidents interviewed - TunnelCast, May 2010

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