The history of geosynthetics has been richly documented by our scholars, researchers, writers, and manufacturers—to list but a handful of sources. Excerpts from these sources are offered here as a “look back.”
Compiled and edited by Ron Bygness
Magazine reports from the early ‘80s
From: Industrial Fabric Products Review, July 1981
Geotextiles have revolutionized the civil engineering field and have forced the textile industry and the civil engineering profession to join forces. In the process, a healthy market for industrial fabrics has developed, which appears to offer an almost unlimited potential.
From: Geotechnical Fabrics Report (GFR ),Volume 1, Number 1, Summer 1983
In this premier issue, you will find a directory of geotextile manufacturers and a guide to their products, a basic introduction to geotextiles, and a technical paper on double-layer textiles for cast-in-place revetments.
Founders, promoters, and terminology
A number of us, e.g., Dan Marks in Richardson and Koerner (1990), and Holtz and Christopher (1990), have called Robert J. Barrett the “Father of Geotextiles” because of his pioneering effort in the late 1950s to convince engineers to use geotextiles to replace graded granular filters in erosion-control revetments. Barrett himself described some of his early experiences in the foreword to the section on erosion control in Richardson and Koerner (1990). In his first year, he sold only three jobs and only six the following year. Thank goodness Bob Barrett was a persistent man!
While our colleague Jean-Pierre Giroud is properly credited for the names geotextiles and geomembranes, Bob Koerner really did the hard work necessary to bring geosynthetics to the forefront of so much of civil engineering practice. Bob applied his many talents and enormous energy to doing research, writing articles and textbooks, teaching short courses, and giving lectures and seminars, all of which were essential for geosynthetics to develop from an exotic curiosity to a real honest-to-goodness civil engineering material.
Last but not least, 1983 was the year [when] our discipline got its name. While I am often quoted for starting the geoterminology with the words geotextile and geomembrane, it is fair to credit Joe Fluet for the word that best captures our discipline: geosynthetics, which he coined in 1983.
I had to be reminded by Bob Koerner in his Terzaghi Lecture (Koerner, 2000) that Terzaghi had used “plastic membranes” in Mission (now called Terzaghi Dam) in British Columbia in 1957-60. (See also the description in Koerner and Welsh, 1980.) Although not what we would call today a geosynthetic, the application was remarkable, especially in a critical structure. Credit for the use of modern geotextiles functioning as filters in dams goes to several French engineers who published interesting case histories in the 1977 Paris Conference.
I also want to mention my former colleague and good friend, Oleg Wager, in Sweden. He invented the first modern prefabricated geocomposite drain in 1971 as a replacement for conventional sand drains (and Kjellman paper drains) to accelerate the consolidation of soft soils. Wager’s first drain had a craft paper filter surrounding a grooved polyethylene core, but not long after, the manufacturer started using a heatbonded nonwoven geotextile for the filter. This history is recounted by Holtz et al. (1991).
Other pioneers and sponsors
I do have a few favorite moments from the early days of geosynthetics when they were still called road fabrics or filter fabrics:
In the early ’70s, we were trying to get road fabrics accepted by the big contractors like Brown & Root of Houston. We had two very successful installations in oil drilling roads in southeast Texas, so we put some stock at a local supply house in Beaumont and then took sample rolls out to new local sites in hopes of securing more orders.
We drove into a drilling patch near Orange, Texas. On the road leading to the construction trailer, there was a large sign: “ALL visitors MUST wear hardhats.” We were prepared and put them on. The first man to approach our truck was the jobsite foreman … wearing a strawhat! We knew we had our work cut out!
We explained the product, a white fabric made of polypropylene and nylon, and told of the two nearby successes. He went to the roll of fabric, felt it, and said: “You want me to build my roads on bedsheets?”
We persisted and offered a demonstration. Two days later, we got an order from this site for 40 rolls of fabric.
The U.S. pioneers of reinforced embankments on soft soils were Jack Fowler of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and his major professor at Oklahoma State, Al Haliburton. After a couple of failures (fortunately well-documented for us by Fowler and Haliburton), they used multifilament woven geotextiles to reinforce a successful test section and later an embankment constructed to almost 8m high on foundation soils as soft as 60 kPa. This was at the Corps’ dredged disposal site Pinto Pass, Mobile Harbor, Ala., and the test and construction are described in Fowler and Haliburton, 1980; Haliburton, Fowler, and Langan, 1980; and Fowler, 1981. Pinto Pass was an important case history because the design assumptions and procedures proposed by Haliburton and Fowler were verified, and, most importantly, we learned that proper construction is absolutely essential for successful construction of embankments on ultra-soft soils.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) was involved early in supporting research on geosynthetics. I remember Dick Bell visiting me in France in 1978 while on a fact-finding mission for FHWA. This work resulted in the publication by Dick of a well-known report in 1982.
In 1984, the FHWA sponsored another major project, this time on soil reinforcement. Important tasks included building 12 instrumented, full-scale reinforced-soil structures near Chicago, performing numerical and model studies, and reviewing available design methods. Barry Christopher managed this project that culminated with the publication of a report in 1989, with Barry as the principal author.
There are two pioneers who used geotextiles as separators in railroads. Jack Newby of the Southern Pacific conducted full-scale experiments with geotextiles in track subgrades, and Gerry Raymond of Queens University, Kingston, Ontario, who performed some rather large-scale model tests of track-ballast-roadbed systems in his laboratory at Queens.
At the Las Vegas (1982) conference, the only slope paper was by Dick Murray, describing a bilinear stability analysis method for fabric-reinforced steep slopes. Almost as an afterthought, he also mentions the first application of geogrids, although it was called a “fabric” in the paper, for the reinstatement of a failed slope.
In 1975, I thought that the Bureau of Reclamation might be a possible user of drainage fabrics for large projects and requested a meeting with the Director of Construction to explain the uses, merits, and costs of filter fabrics. I flew out to Denver for the meeting and was ushered into the director’s office.
Without any fanfare, he asked me to give some technical details and experience to-date in subdrain applications. I explained about our laboratory trials and a few prior installations and tried to assure him that our experience was all very positive.
He sat back and then said: “Young man, we design all of our drains and dams to last a minimum of 50 years. When you have that kind of experience, you should come back and see me.”
At that point, I was shown to the door. It was a lonely flight back to Charlotte.
I believe engineers and specifiers have always been undereducated or misguided about geosynthetics and that our primary competition still today is old school design methods that don’t include geosynthetics. I continue to hope that as an industry we can greatly increase efforts to educate engineers on the value that geosynthetics can add to a design. As an industry, we should focus on building a “larger pie” for all suppliers to benefit from. A person I highly respect once said in the early 1990s that “there is nothing wrong with the geosynthetics industry that an additional 500 million square yards of volume a year won’t solve!” That is still true in 2009!
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, geomembranes became credible materials for lining waste disposal facilities. This was recognized by the 1984 amendments to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), wherein double liner systems associating geomembranes and clay were mandated for hazardous waste landfills. Geomembranes started being used extensively, not only in hazardous waste landfills, but also in municipal solid-waste landfills.
This growing use of geomembranes led to the use of other geosynthetics in landfills: geotextiles, geonets, geogrids. The essential role played during this period by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in particular by Bob Landreth, should not be forgotten.
Al Haliburton of Oklahoma State University did some mostly conceptual work on geotextiles in airfields for the USAF in the late 1970s. Shortly afterward, my colleague, Milton Harr at Purdue University, and I also had a project sponsored by the USAF to look at geosynthetics for the rapid repair of runways. We performed model tests of footings on the surface of a dense sand in a large sand box that contained layers of woven geotextiles and biaxial geogrids. This work was unfortunately never published.
We heard of a fairly large-area stabilization project in Alabama in 1976, so we arranged a meeting with the general contractor to discuss aggregate savings on his site. We were selling a 140g/m2 fabric made in England that was packaged in rolls 5m wide and 100m long.
As I explained the rollout and overlap of these rolls, I could sense that this contractor was not really following the procedure. He stopped me in mid-sentence and said, “When you learn to talk American, we may be able to do some business.”
I quickly dropped all discussion of metric units and we ended up with a large order the following spring.
It is interesting that the first GRS wall was built in France, the home of Terre Armeé, in 1971. As described in the Paris (1977) conference, the wall was 4m high and used a 300g/m2 nonwoven geotextile as the reinforcing.
One of the most significant milestones in our industry was the adoption of the AASHTO M-288 criteria.
Although I elected not to name manufacturers in this paper, I do recognize their essential role in the growth of our discipline. As I have often said, we would not be talking and writing about geosynthetics and the geosynthetics discipline today had manufacturers not developed geosynthetics in the first place.
Clearly, the manufacturers have been at the origin of this discipline, and they have greatly contributed to its growth by successfully meeting the challenges and demands of the engineering community.
… [in the early days], sometimes the geosynthetics manufacturers’ representatives were a bit too competitive, aggressive, and self-serving. They often seemed to go for the short-term advantage, but in my opinion such an approach was detrimental to the long-term health of the entire geosynthetics industry. All of us have stories about some of these early characters, but because most of them are no longer in the geosynthetics industry, these stories are appropriate for happy-hour discussions.