Vitruvian man

17 March 2022

This month, we feature the obituary of John Bartlett, inventor of the slurry tunnelling machine who died last year at the age of 94.

Obituaries tend not to sit well in technical publications; a small news piece is usually enough. But sometimes, the achievements of the deceased prove so monumental, of such global significance, that you’d be doing readers a disservice not to include them. For lessons can be learnt and inspiration taken from those who have departed. And we can certainly take inspiration from Bartlett’s life and achievements.

He was of that rare breed of people who excel in several unrelated fields. While studying engineering at Cambridge, he also read law, (graduating in both); enjoyed music, acted and sang. That he chose tunnel engineering as a career did not hinder his passion for, and expert knowledge of, maritime history.

His invention of the slurry machine revolutionised tunnelling (no exaggeration). And of course, he provided critical engineering input into major tunnel schemes such as the Channel Tunnel.

Bartlett was a Renaissance man, a polymath equally at home in the arts and the sciences. He combined theory and practice to achieve excellence. He was also living proof of the Roman military architect Vitruvius’s ideal that: “He who is theoretical as well as practical is therefore doubly armed: able not only to prove the propriety of his design but equally so to carry it into execution.”

Society has lost sight of this critical interconnection between theory and practice, leading to an over emphasis on theory at the expense of practice; on formal education at the expense of practical skills. This has created shortages of critically-needed skilled labour and an oversupply of university graduates.

But a correction is taking place: those who shun tertiary education should not be made to feel inferior. They can embark on apprenticeships which have enjoyed renewed interest in recent years. Let us hope that the apprenticeship system proves as able as the traditional university route in producing men and women of the calibre of John Bartlett.

George Demetri Editor