He was widely recognised for his contributions to engineering and, amongst a string of professional awards, was appointed as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), as a Companion of the Order of the Bath and knighted.
William Glanville was born on 1 February 1900 in Willesden, Middlesex, the second child, and only son, of Amelia and William Glanville. His father was originally from Cornwall and worked as a builder. William was educated at Kilburn Grammar School and served briefly in the British Army during the final stages of the First World War. Upon demobilisation he applied to study civil engineering at East London College (now Queen Mary, University of London from which he graduated with first class honours in 1922.
Upon graduation Glanville entered employment as an engineering assistant at the Building Research Station (which would become the Building Research Establishment) in East Acton. Glanville was only the third person employed by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research to undertake research work at the underfunded station which was established in April 1921. Glanville's first investigation at the Building Research Station (BRS) was to study how the water permeability of concrete varied and, with Duff Abrams, was one of the first to attribute this primarily to the water-cement ratio and not to the type and proportions of aggregate used. He also found that concrete became much more impermeable when cured by immersion in water, compared with the more popular air curing method. In 1925 the BRS moved to Garston near Watford.
In 1931 he was consulted by London County Council on the drawing up of a code of practice for the use of reinforced concrete in buildings. The report, drawing heavily on Glanville's research, was published in 1933 and later incorporated into British Standards code 114. His research covered almost every aspect of concrete use in construction and included shrinkage stresses, creeping, and permeability as well as work on indeterminate structures, timber roofs, and curved bracing members. Glanville remained at the research station until 1936 when he was asked to become deputy director of the Road Research Laboratory (RRL) in Harmondsworth.
At the RRL Glanville took on an increasingly more administrative role, devolving research to his assistants, however he still found time to undertake a comprehensive study of the performance of concrete roads. He also established a section of the laboratory to work exclusively on soil mechanics, a subject which was beginning to come to the fore of building and infrastructure design. He was made director of the RRL in 1939.
At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 Glanville was put in charge of the research and experiments department of the Ministry of Home Security as chief scientific adviser at the Princes Risborough station. The station was situated here to avoid German air raids, when these failed to materialise he returned to the RRL and acted as an advisor to the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Aircraft Production on the construction of concrete runways and specialised airfields. The latter included "Prefabricated Bituminised Surfacing" (PBS) made from bitumen-impregnated hessian which could act as a runway surface over swampy or otherwise difficult ground. These PBS airstrips had a service life of around four months and were easily transportable, in the course of the war 60 million square yards of PBS were manufactured in the UK, US and India. The soil section of the BRS, assisted by Glanville, was also responsible for the assessment and categorisation of European beaches prior to the Normandy Landings.
The soil section, which Glanville set up, was particularly useful to the war effort with soil analysis impacting aircraft and tank designs. Glanville had a particular interest in explosives and he helped Edward Terrell of the Admiralty's DMWD develop a stone-chip-and-bitumen protective plating "plastic armour" which was installed on the bridges and gun positions of most allied merchant vessels. Post war Terrell shared some of his Award of £9,500 for the invention with Glanville. Glanville's most famous contribution to the war effort was his work, with Barnes Wallis, on the bouncing bombs used in the famous Dambusters raids. Glanville was responsible for calculating the correct explosives charge and for the use of scale models to test the theory on. Post-war analysis of the raids has shown that Glanville's breach size forecasts were accurate to within 10%.
After the war Glanville remained with the RRL and concentrated on research into roads. The organisation soon adopted a radical new form of study, implementing experiments on live highways. This method resulted in improvements to surfacing materials, road marking paint, and non-skid treatments. The laboratory was significantly enlarged in 1946 and took on a wider remit to investigate road safety and traffic management. Research in this area lead to better tyre materials, zebra crossings, speed limits, and laws regarding the wearing of safety helmets and seat belts. The RRL also investigated headlight dazzle and braking distances.
Glanville was involved with many professional institutions and other bodies. He had many contacts abroad through his road research and chaired the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) committee which organised the biennial overseas conference. Glanville was elected President of the ICE in November 1950 and such was his popularity in that office that there was a movement amongst members to waive the law that limits presidents to one term that had long been in the statute books. He was a member of the organising committee of several road related bodies as well as the International Society for Soil Mechanics in 1957 and the ICE conference on civil engineering problems overseas from 1952 to 1970. He served on the British Standards codes of practice committee from 1940 to 1965, on the Royal Engineers' advisory board from 1950 to 1965, and on the board of the British Nuclear Energy Conference from 1953 to 1958. He was also a member of the Civil Engineering Research Council and its later incarnations, and in 1969 was president of the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers.
In 1965, at the age of 65, Glanville retired from the directorship of the RRL and established a private civil and structural engineering consultancy. He was asked by the president of the International Road Federation to serve as their consultant, a service he provided for ten years, and acted as an expert witness for the Ministry of Transport and the Department of the Environment in court cases. William Glanville died suddenly of a stroke, on 30 June 1976, at his home in Northwood, Middlesex.
Glanville obtained the degrees of PhD in 1925 and DSc in 1930 in the course of his work at the BRS. He was recognised by the government for his important work and was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1944 New Year Honours, a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) in the 1953 New Year Honours, and was knighted in the 1960 New Year Honours. He was awarded the Institution of Structural Engineers Gold Medal in 1962 and was a fellow of that institution. He received the Viva Shield and gold medal of the Worshipful Company of Carmen in 1965. He was an honorary member of the Institutions of Municipal Engineers, Highway Engineers and Royal Engineers, and of the Concrete Society. He was a fellow and governor of Queen Mary College, London, and almoner, governor of Christ's Hospital, Horsham and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1958. In all he published 115 articles, papers and books.
Glanville married Millient Carr on 20 June 1930 by whom he had a daughter and a son. The latter would follow in his father's footsteps and become a civil engineer.
Glanville was played by Colin Tapley in The Dam Busters (1955), the film depiction of Operation Chastise. However the portrayal is somewhat misleading in that it depicts Glanville and the RRL as subordinate to Barnes Wallis whilst this was not the case and both parties worked on an equal footing.