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A forty-year anniversary for the first hardbound book on geosynthetics

October 1st, 2019 / By: / GSI News

By Robert M. Koerner

In the late 1970s, I regularly invited speakers to make presentations to my geotechnical engineering classes at Drexel University. Two of them were very memorable: Bill Ragen of Mirafi and Bill Witherow of Carlisle. Their respective topics were “filter fabrics” and “pond liners,” and in truth I didn’t associate them with one another within the modern context of geosynthetics that we do today. Shortly after their presentations and following several small consulting projects, two other events occurred that were meaningful: One was the 1977 conference in Paris, France, entitled “International Conference on the Use of Fabrics in Geotechnics.” The other was a chance meeting between a good friend, Joseph P. Welsh, of the ground modification firm Hayward Baker Co. and an editor of the John Wiley Book Co. (by the name of Dan Morris), who had read the proceedings of the Paris conference and suggested to Welsh that he write a book on construction fabrics. Welsh, being too busy, suggested that he and I do it together. 

The project was interesting to me from the perspective that this was a new field of endeavor and that it would result in a hardbound book. This was important to me in that throughout my formal education, all the classroom books we used were hardbound. This continued throughout my university years at Drexel, Columbia, Delaware and Duke. There simply were no softbound books used at that time. When softbound books and paperback conference proceedings began to appear, my thought (and perhaps others’) was that they were not quite “finalized.” Many were published by university print departments and updated regularly. As an example, all soils laboratory books fell into this category until T. William Lambe’s hardbound book eventually settled the issue. In general, a hardbound book was felt to be archival and belonged permanently on one’s bookshelf.

The cover of the first hardbound book on geosynthetics

At any rate, my initial thought regarding the possibility of a new hardbound book was that the information base was certainly sparse, but upon further reflection (remember the “publish or perish” concept was deeply entrenched in all of academia, including Drexel University), I started gathering all available publications and manufacturers’ literature and formed a table of contents. While the focus was indeed “fabrics,” certainly impermeable fabrics (aka, pond liners) were also being considered. As such, the book was written between 1978 and 1979 and published as a 267-page hardbound book in 1980 by J. Wiley and Sons Inc., under the title Construction and Geotechnical Engineering Using Synthetic Fabrics. The chapters were as follows:

  1. Overview and Background of Synthetic Fibers
  2. Construction Fabrics
  3. Fabric Use in Separation of Materials
  4. Fabric Use in Reinforcement
  5. Fabric Use in Drainage
  6. Fabric Use in Erosion Prevention
  7. Fabric Use as Forms
  8. Impermeable Fabrics
  9. Guidelines and Current Research and Development Activities
  10. Several appendices and a “units” conversion table

There were a few numerical examples, but it was far from a complete textbook as there were no homework problems, and the references were obviously lean at this early stage of the technology.

We (Welsh and I) were delighted with the book’s initial reception—its sales were good and, more importantly, my phone “never stopped ringing.” Clearly, my subsequent decision to go completely into this newly emerging field was very obvious and with an interest level well beyond all other research activities I had at the time, e.g., deep foundations, particulate behavior, acoustic emissions and ground-penetrating radar. The one cloud that arose, however, was a review by Dr. Alan Haliburton of Oklahoma State University, who commented that it was “too much salad and not enough meat and potatoes.” For those of you who remember Haliburton, you can somewhat understand the context of his comment. What it did for me, however, was to propel me onward to a “meat and potatoes” book, which emerged six years later when the first edition of Designing with Geosynthetics was published in 1986. Subsequent editions have been in 1990, 1994, 1998, 2005 and 2012.

Somewhat after the publication of this first book in 1980, I learned from England’s Peter Rankilor that our “Construction Fabrics” book was very close to not having been the first hardbound geosynthetics book. It seems that he had submitted his own manuscript to the Wiley Book Co. in London about the same time as we submitted ours to the Wiley Book Co. in New York. Of course, neither London nor New York knew of the overlap of the two respective book topics and, more importantly, Wiley in London lost all of Rankilor’s artwork, photographs and drawings, forcing him to do everything all over again. (Remember, these were the days before computers and an all-electronic publication system.) The delay cost him at least a year, which resulted in his book appearing in 1981, a year later than ours. Somewhat more disconcerting was to learn from Georg Heerten of NAUE that he had studied under Professor Zitscher at Hanover University who had written a book in 1971 titled Kunststoffe für den Wasserbau (Plastic Materials in Hydraulic Engineering). Had I known about it, our original book would have been much more detailed and authoritative.

At any rate, the Koerner/Welsh hardbound book of 1980 certainly put me on the map and (fortunately) I never looked backward. All subsequent research at Drexel University, along with courses, students, projects, etc., was focused on geosynthetics, and it has not stopped to this day, although the work now occurs within the context of the Geosynthetic Institute. Geosynthetics is a marvelous field of endeavor and a technology that has had, and will continue to have, an awesome growth and benefit to society. I am delighted to have been a part of this growth and hope to continue for as long as possible. 


Robert M. Koerner’s interest in geosynthetic materials spans nearly 40 years of teaching, writing and consulting. His pioneering work has helped generations of educators, researchers, designers, manufacturers and regulators.