Home  Site Map  Source Page

Dr. Edmund Cadbury Hambly

Obituary - As printed in ‘The Independent’, 1st May 1995

Find Edmund in the family tree

Edmund Hambly was a distinguished independent consulting engineer whose work ranged from troubleshooting offshore platforms and bridge design to underpinning an Oxford college. He was also the 130th president - and one of its youngest - of the Institution of Civil Engineers. His inquisitiveness, analytical skills and sound judgement, combined with his courtesy, strong character, Quaker background, dislike of dogma, high ethical stance and meticulous preparation, made for an extremely talented, versatile and professional engineer.

From Eton, Hambly went on to First Class honours and the structures prize in the Engineering Tripos at Cambridge. Research in soil mechanics under Ken Roscoe followed, with the invention and development of a “bi-axial” (two-dimensional) and then a “true tri-axial” (three-dimensional) apparatus for a better understanding of the deformation of soil under engineering conditions. Roscoe insisted on a thorough approach, which Hambly retained throughout his life. At Cambridge he met and married Elizabeth Gorham, who became his lifelong companion and partner.

Hambly left Cambridge to spend five years in industry. He worked on the design of structures with Ove Arup and Partners, on the construction of an underpass with Kier Ltd, and the design of bridges with Gifford and Partners. He developed simple physical models and hand calculations, which led to the publication in 1976 of his first book, Bridge Deck Behaviour, illustrated with sketches or photographs on almost every page. In 1974, aged 31, he set up as an independent consultant, working from his home in Hertfordshire.

An early commission was to interview designers and constructors of bridge foundations for the Building Research Establishment. The result was a second book, Bridge Foundations and Substructures (1979), copiously illustrated with thumbnail sketches and stressing the importance of simple details. Writing books and producing some 40 technical papers kept Hambly busy when work was slack.

As a visiting professor at Oxford from 1989 to 1992 Hambly encouraged students to set him problems and “make him sweat” out a solution in his lectures. He in turn set them real problems to which his third book, Structural Analysis by Example (1994), gives simple solutions and physical reasons behind complex calculations.

His skills were used by the oil and gas industry to advise on the safety of offshore structures damaged during installation or by fatigue from waves. Asked to investigate a possible foundation failure of the Ranger 1 jack-up drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico that had led to loss of life, he found the cause to be fatigue, amplified by the vibration of the structure in response to waves. He illustrated his findings with a simple model showing the modes of vibration and potential instability of a jack-up rig. His experience in alerting owners of other offshore structures to inherent design defects led to his spearheading guidelines on warnings of preventable disasters by the Fellowship of Engineering, later the Royal Academy of Engineering. He became a firm, patient and persuasive chairman of committees.

Edmund Hambly became a Vice-President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1991 and President in 1994. His presidential address, “Advancing Civil Engineers”, showed how videos and illustrations could make engineering more fun, and encouraged younger engineers to have a greater role in the profession. He hoped to make engineering more valued by society and challenged engineers to make towns and cities attractive and more sustainable and construction more environmentally friendly.

A humble and generous man, Hambly drew great strength from the calm and support of his wife and family. He was inspired by the work of early scientists, particularly Robert Hooke, whose contribution he felt had been under-recognised. Hambly’s concern for the challenges facing the developing world was exemplified by his great interest in the efforts of RedR (Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief). He brought to the Institution of Civil Engineers the same commitment that he gave to all his professional work.

His early death, just five months into his presidency, robs the engineering profession of an inspiring enthusiast and hardworking leader.