French spy turned engineer behind Sydney Opera House dies at 97

David Gray, REUTERS file picture | The Sydney Opera House

A former French spy hailed as a genius for an engineering feat that made building the Sydney Opera House possible has died aged 97, officials said Monday.


Joe Bertony -- one of the original engineers of Australia's most recognisable building -- handwrote 30,000 separate equations to create the "erection arch" or truss which held the concrete sails in place during construction.

"Bertony was a remarkable man who will be remembered as the inventor of the Sydney Opera House's mobile erection arch," Sydney Opera House chief executive Louise Herron said in a statement.

"Those calculations were checked by the only computer in Australia at the time with a large enough capacity to do so. Not a single error was found," she said.

"Bertony was a genius. Without him, the spectacular sails might never have become a reality."

He died at his home in Sydney on Sunday, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

Born on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, Bertony joined the French navy to study naval engineering and was recruited as a spy, according to author Helen Pitt, who has written a book about the Opera House.

He was twice captured by the Germans during World War II and sent to concentration camps, but escaped both times and was later awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government for his wartime actions, Pitt added.

He migrated to Australia in 1953.

Bertony worked as an engineer at the Queensland construction company, Hornibrook, when he was asked to go to Sydney to solve the biggest construction problem they had encountered: the erection arch of the Sydney Opera House.

David Evans, who was asked to check Bertony’s calculations by computer, later said:

"It could be argued that Hornibrook chief Corbett Gore could have found another person, or a team of people, to do what Joe did, but I doubt if there was anyone with Joe's genius to see how to develop the telescopic truss and to build the ribs with it, or to do a dozen other things of importance on that site.”

"It would have taken many minds and many rounds of trial and error, and a much longer time and a much bigger budget, to get those ribs in the air if Joe hadn't been there. Other solutions would have lacked his elegance and genius."

The Opera House, which opened in 1973, is billed as Australia's number-one tourist destination and is the country's busiest performing arts centre.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning