Civil engineering pioneer John Bartlett CBE FREng, who designed the UK side of the Channel Tunnel, will next week receive one of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s highest accolades, the Sir Frank Whittle Medal, in recognition of his outstanding contributions to tunnel design and construction.

The Sir Frank Whittle Medal is awarded to an engineer whose sustained achievements have had a profound impact upon their engineering discipline. Academy President Professor Dame Ann Dowling OM DBE FREng FRS presented the award at the Royal Academy of Engineering’s AGM in London on 18 September.

Over the last six decades John Bartlett’s work has transformed tunnelling technology, with the invention of the Bentonite Tunnelling Machine, the precursor of all the world’s tunnel boring machines for loose, sandy soils, among his many achievements.

Boring tunnels in non-cohesive soils – sands, silts, gravels and mixed ground – is difficult and often dangerous task, with the tunnel face needing continuous support and a risk of ground water flooding the works. Tunnelling in such loose soils was possible before the invention of the Bentonite Tunnelling Machine, but the traditional processes used, such as workers digging by hand under compressed air, were extremely hazardous and expensive. 

John Bartlett’s solution was inspired by a visit to Milan, where he observed how the city’s first metro line had been built using a ‘cut and cover’ method rather than boring tunnels. The engineers had used bentonite clay to support the trenches while they were being excavated. Bentonite clay is frequently used in construction because- in slurry form it is thixotropic – a thick gel when at rest but a liquid when agitated. Bartlett began developing a new type of tunnelling machine that combined slurry trenches with mechanical digging technology.

The result was the Bentonite Tunnelling Machine, which he patented in 1964. The machine uses pressurised bentonite slurry in a sealed bulkhead behind the cutting face to balance the water pressure in the ground and stabilise the tunnel while supporting rings are installed. The excavated soil is then separated from the slurry, which is recirculated to the cutting face.

John Bartlett’s Bentonite Tunnelling Machine became the prototype for a whole new class of slurry tunnelling machines and by the end of the 1970s more than 1000 had been used worldwide. The machine’s descendants have been used in many major civil engineering projects. They include Ada and Phyllis, the giant boring machines used by Crossrail to construct tunnels between Royal Oak and Farringdon, and Busy Lizzie, which was used to cut the Lee Tunnel, the first section of London’s Thames Tideway ‘super sewer’.

John Bartlett spent most of his career with consulting engineers Mott Hay & Anderson from 1957 until his retirement as Chairman and Senior Partner in 1988. He worked on the first Dartford Tunnel, the first tunnelled sections of the Toronto Subway and was the project engineer responsible for London’s Victoria Line. He also had design responsibility for the Channel Tunnel, first as principal designer for the scheme and following the project’s revision in the early 1970s, as principal design consultant for all civil and geotechnical engineering on the UK section.

He was elected a Fellow of the Fellowship (now the Royal Academy) of Engineering in 1978 and was a founder member and Chair of the British Tunnelling Society. In 1982 he was elected President of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

On receiving the award, John Bartlett said: “Civil Engineering today is a team game. I hope members of my team will enjoy sharing the recognition given by this award. Many thanks to those who put me forward.”

Lord Robert Mair CBE FREng FRS, President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, said: “There can be no doubt that a major revolution in the worldwide tunnelling industry was triggered by John Bartlett’s invention of the Bentonite Tunnelling Machine. It has enabled a rapid increase in tunnel construction around the world, particularly in urban areas, for water supply, sanitation and transport – with remarkable benefit to humanity.”

Notes for Editors

  1. Named after Britain’s jet engine genius, the Sir Frank Whittle Medal is awarded to an engineer resident in the UK whose outstanding and sustained achievements have had a profound impact on their engineering discipline.
  2. Royal Academy of Engineering

    As the UK’s national academy for engineering and technology, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers from academia and business – our Fellows – to advance and promote excellence in engineering for the benefit of society.

We harness their experience and expertise to provide independent advice to government, to deliver programmes that help exceptional engineering researchers and innovators realise their potential, to engage the public with engineering and to provide leadership for the profession. 

We have three strategic priorities:

  • Make the UK the leading nation for engineering innovation and businesses
  • Address the engineering skills and diversity challenge
  • Position engineering at the heart of society

We bring together engineers, policy makers, entrepreneurs, business leaders, academics, educators and the public in pursuit of these goals.

Engineering is a global profession, so we work with partners across the world to advance engineering’s contribution to society on an international, as well as a national scale.

For more information

Siobhan Pipa at the Royal Academy of Engineering

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