Civil engineering dates back hundreds of years. In ancient Rome, builders forged conduits and pipelines to deliver water from mountain springs to faraway cities. In twelfth- century France, flying buttresses were used to construct French Gothic cathedrals.
Modern civil engineering emerged in the late eighteenth century, when English engineer John Smeaton coined the term and founded the practice as its own profession. Although many engineers have helped shape the field through their research, study, and implementation of building techniques, five stand out among the rest.
Innovators Who Shaped the Field
Deciding who made the greatest contribution to civil engineering is a matter of personal opinion. What can be agreed upon, however, is that innovations used by Smeaton and other famous civil engineers moved the field forward from the eighteenth century to the modern day.
The Father of Civil Engineering
Englishman John Smeaton is known as the father of civil engineering, and for good reason. His techniques for construction of the Eddystone Lighthouse near Rame Head, England created the engineering standard for wave-swept structures. He is also noted for his work on the Forth and Clyde Canal in Scotland. Upon completion, the canal created a needed waterway between the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea.
Smeaton is also credited with founding the Society of Civil Engineers (now known as the Smeatonian Society), to bring together lawyers, engineers, and entrepreneurs with the goal of advancing plans for large civil projects, such as railways and canals.
Scottish engineer Thomas Telford is best known for his design and construction of the Menai Bridge in Wales. The 580-foot-long suspension bridge connects Bangor, Wales, to the island of Anglesey and was the first large bridge constructed using this technique.
Construction involved the use of chains affixed to masonry towers at both ends to support the deck. When the structure was complete, builders had used more than two thousand tons of wrought iron to bring the design to fruition.
Telford’s other famous works include bridges over the Severn River at Gloucester and Twekesbury and the St. Katharine Docks in London. In 1820, he served as the first president of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE). Today, ICE boasts a global membership of more than ninety-two thousand professionals.
The Eiffel Tower may not be Gustave Eiffel’s only creation, but it’s by far his most famous. The eighty-one-story landmark is the tallest structure in Paris and was the tallest structure in the world at its completion.
The French-born engineer is also known for designing and building hundreds of other metal structures including railway bridges, industrial installations, and buildings, such as the Porto Viaduct and the Garabit Viaduct in France.
In addition to his work on the Eiffel Tower, he also worked alongside French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi to design the steel framework of the Statue of Liberty.
George Washington Ferris
As plans for the 1890 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago began, innovators on this side of the Atlantic needed an answer to the Eiffel Tower that was bold, daring, and unique.
During the brainstorming process, thirty-three-year-old George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. was struck by inspiration. His idea was grand. It involved building an enormous revolving steel wheel that would carry passengers to a height greater than the Statue of Liberty.
Although some expressed concern a structure of this magnitude would be too fragile for people to ride, Ferris was determined to bring his design to life. After spending more than $25,000 of his own money to recruit investors, perform safety studies, and hire more engineers, fair organizers chose his wheel to be their answer to Eiffel.
The Ferris Wheel opened on June 21, 1893, to resounding success and became the basis for all Ferris wheels since.
Joseph B. Strauss
In the early 1900s, business owners and politicians in Northern California began to consider the possibility of bridging the distance between the San Francisco Bay across the Golden Gate strait. In 1919, the city’s chief engineer contacted Strauss Engineering Corporation owner Joseph B. Strauss to see if he and other bridge designers could engineer a solution.
Although Strauss’s original plans were comprised of a symmetrical cantilever-suspension hybrid bridge, it was decided that a suspension bridge design would be more practical. Construction broke ground in January 1933 and the bridge opened to the public in May 1937. Today, the 1.7-mile-long Golden Gate Bridge carries roughly one hundred twelve thousand vehicles per day.
Engineering the Future
Engineers will continue to be involved in the planning, design, and construction of key infrastructure projects far into the future. Those who are passionate about problem solving and design may one day be regarded among the famous civil engineers of their generation.
Obtaining a Master of Science in Civil Engineering from the New Jersey Institute of Technology allows current engineers to build upon their existing skill set and advance their careers. Discover how an MS in Civil Engineering from NJIT can refine your skills and propel you toward career success tomorrow.
Encyclopedia Britannica, “Menai Bridge”
Encyclopedia Britannica, “John Smeaton”
New Jersey Institute of Technology, Master of Science in Civil Engineering