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News > Archives & History > The Father of the Tube

The Father of the Tube

James Henry Greathead (1858-60) is forever remembered as the father of the 'tube' - it was the vision and expertise of this OD that made this extraordinary method of transport possible.

The following article was published in the Diocesan College Magzine (old blue magazine) in December 2011, in the 'Memories' section. Please let us know if you enjoy reading these stories from our previous magazines or how we can improve on them. 


Father of the tube

The beginning of Bishops coincided exactly with the halcyon beginnings of modern science. True, science had no place in the schools early curriculum, but the first Principal was a trained scientist. Henry Master White loved to wander around his domain botanizing, geologizing and zoologizing. His boys went with him. White was also an expert meteorologist. His boys were inspired and despite its initial lack of formal science classes, Bishops numbers amongst its early students' several great scientists, the life and achievements of one of whom is glorified in an impressive memorial which stands forever in Cornhill, London near the Bank Underground station next to the Royal Exchange. Are there any other statues of ODs in central London?

James Henry Greathead (1858-60) is forever remembered as the father of the ‘tube’. Next time you sit in a train on the London Underground remember that it was the vision and expertise of an OD that made this extraordinary method of transport possible.

“He was a God in his field. It is fair to say that without his invention of the tunnelling shield, there would be no London Underground.”

James was at Bishops from 1858-60 and was probably South Africa’s most famous engineer and our first prominent inventor. After leaving Bishops he emigrated to England and became extensively involved with the development of the new traction and eventually electric underground railway network in London.

His most famous inventions were The Greathead Shield for underground tunnelling (1869) and the Greathead Grouting Machine (1891) which were extensively used for the development of the underground throughout central London, Liverpool and elsewhere. The first tunnelling shields were invented by Marc Brunel, but there was considerable loss of life as they tunnelled beneath the Thames, between 1825 and 1843.

By 1867 engineers proposed, as a relief to London’s increasingly congested road traffic, a system of underground railways in ‘tubes’ built using shields and lined with cast-iron segments. However, no contractor could be found to carry out such dangerous work, until Greathead tendered for the construction of the shafts and tunnels using his newly invented cylindrical, wrought iron tunnelling shield. The Tower Subway was opened in 1870. Greathead’s shield moved forward in one piece and cut and protected as it moved forward. Behind it, a permanent tunnel lining of cast iron rings was fitted into place – a most important innovation.

He patented many of his improvements to tunnel engineering, including the use of compressed air and forward propulsion by hydraulic jacks, both of which are now standard features of tunnel construction worldwide. James Greathead died of cancer in 1896 at the age of 52. Next time you are in London take the time to visit the three-metre bronze statue by James Butler that was unveiled by the Lord Mayor of London in 1984 next to the Royal Exchange.

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