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Robert Stephenson (1803–1859) – the first groundwater engineer

M. Preene
M. Preene
Arup, Rose Wharf 78 East Street, Leeds, LS9 8EE, UK
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January 01, 2004


From a humble background in the mining communities of Tyne and Wear, with little academic education, Robert Stephenson followed in the footsteps of his father, George, and became one of the foremost civil and mechanical engineers of the early 19th Century. While he is primarily associated with railways, Robert Stephenson had considerable dealings with groundwater during his professional life, applying a rational, empirical approach that would be familiar to modern practitioners. Stephenson’s approach to groundwater issues was probably shaped largely by the years spent battling water-bearing quicksands during construction of the Kilsby Tunnel near Rugby on the London to Birmingham Railway. Careful observations allowed him to conclude that local drainage by use of arrays of wells was possible, without the need to drain the whole aquifer body. Later in his career he advised on public water supplies from the Chalk for London and the Sherwood Sandstone for Liverpool. His careful observations and reasoned interpretation, allowed him to advance the concept of a ‘cone of influence’ around a pumped well and to develop tests and monitoring programmes to assess the impact of new abstractions on existing water features. Today, his work may seem basic, even obvious, but, in the days before the work of Darcy and Dupuit, there were many who disputed his findings. Stephenson preferred to let the facts to speak for themselves, but where this was not possible he vigorously publicised the benefit of applying a scientific approach to the management and control of groundwater.

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Geological Society, London, Special Publications

200 Years of British Hydrogeology

J. D. Mather
J. D. Mather
University of London, UK
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Geological Society of London
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Publication date:
January 01, 2004




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