A Look at 8 Famous Civil Engineers

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Even the most fundamental principles today’s civil engineers rely on had to be discovered and clarified by those who came before. Civil engineering has only been discussed as a distinct discipline for a few hundred years, yet the contributions of pioneering leaders in the field were decisive in the Industrial Revolution, World War II, and much more.

Let’s review the legacies of eight leading civil engineers of the past:

1) Squire Whipple

Born 1804 in Hardwick, Massachusetts, Squire Whipple quickly distinguished himself as a student. He graduated from the private Union College in Schenectady, New York after just one year of study. In his professional life, he quickly became known as an expert bridge-builder, and was even called “the father of iron bridge building” in his native United States. He is particularly well known for the bowstring arch truss design he patented in 1841. Several examples of his work persist to the present and some are even still in use, including a sleek example in Albany.

2) Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Born 1806 in Portsmouth, England, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was one of the leading civil and mechanical engineers of the Industrial Revolution. Today, he is best known for working on the Great Western Railway, which connected London with the Midlands and much of Wales. Launched in 1833, it was completed by 1838 in no small part due to Brunel’s innovative designs. Brunel’s bridges and tunnels dotted Great Britain, and he was also responsible for numerous steamships. He also contributed to the Thames Tunnel, though in a less active role.

3) John Smeaton

Born 1724 in Leeds, John Smeaton was a prolific figure of towering intellect who became known as “The Father of Civil Engineering.” As a youth, he joined the family law firm before deciding his talents lie elsewhere and becoming a maker of mathematical tools. He did pioneering work on the mechanics of windmills and watermills, being lauded by the day’s learned societies.

Both his theoretical and applied knowledge contributed to a major increase in the efficiency of watermills, which greatly accelerated the early Industrial Revolution. He was also responsible for over a dozen major civil engineering projects, including harbors, canals, mills, and bridges. Civil engineering students across Europe studied his contributions for decades following his death.

4) Gustave Eiffel

Frenchman Alexander Gustave Eiffel, born 1832 in Dijon, is now best known for the 986-foot tower that bears his name. The tower, which was intended to be temporary, is just one of Eiffel’s achievements. During his career, he was better known for innovative ironwork bridges, railway stations, and cast iron, which he researched in great depth. His career included projects in locales as distant as Egypt and Chile, where he designed an all-metal prefabricated church for on-site assembly. His biggest project before “le tour” was the observatory at Nice, completed 1886.

5) Arthur Casagrande

Austrian-born, American-raised Arthur Casagrande received his early training in what is now Slovenia, earning his civil engineering degree from the Technische Hochschule (“Institute of Technology”) in Vienna. In 1924, at age 22, Casagrande left the war-ravaged region to seek financial opportunities and bigger projects in the United States. Securing a job at MIT, he became one of the minds behind a leading soil mechanics lab his supervisor set up in Vienna.

Casagrande used his time in Europe to tour all the active soil mechanics laboratories on the continent, bringing back cutting edge insight to MIT. Later, he became the first-ever Chair of Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering at Harvard University. He trained hundreds of personnel in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and elsewhere.

6) Karl von Terzaghi

Karl Terzaghi, an Austrian born in 1883, was the “father of soil mechanics” and, for much of his career, the patron of Arthur Casagrande. It was Terzaghi whose research agenda was supported by Casagrande at MIT, and the two collaborated much over the years. Though Casagrande brought soil mechanics to the U.S. and its military, von Terzaghi is also credited with advancing other fields, such as railway and highway engineering. His energetic desire to push the boundaries of geology left him well-placed to work on the first hydroelectric plants in Vienna.

Von Terzaghi spent much of 1912 and 1913 in the United States, touring major dams under construction. During World War I, he managed up to 1,000 engineers. Later in the war, he established a pioneering soil engineering lab while working for Istanbul Technical University. Following the war, in 1924, he published his revolutionary work Soil Mechanics and soon brought his knowledge of the burgeoning field to the U.S as an MIT professor.

7) John A. Roebling

John August Roebling, born 1806 in Prussia, learned French and drafting at an early age before attending the Royal Building Academy in Berlin. As a student in architecture and engineering, he was drawn to the challenges of the suspension bridge. During three years of public service, his requests to build them were continuously declined, contributing to a decision to immigrate with his brother. John relocated, becoming an American citizen in 1837 (his birth name was “Johann.”) He was among the founders of the small village of Saxonburg, Pennsylvania.

He began his new career with the Pennsylvania Canal System, and was placed in charge of surveying a railroad route over the Allegheny Mountains. On this job, he installed a wire rope that served as the basis of his new, successful business. In 1844, he built a suspension bridge in Pittsburgh, launching an illustrious career as America’s foremost expert on suspension designs. His newfound success lasted until his death in 1869, and his various business interests passed to his seven children and his second wife.

8) Thomas Telford

Scotsman Thomas Telford, born 1757 in the borderland with England, was known in his day as the “Colossus of Roads.” So prolific was he in developing the civil infrastructure of his native Scotland and, ultimately, Britain as a whole, that his labors helped lay the foundations for the Industrial Revolution. Apprenticed to a stonemason at 14, he worked throughout Edinburgh and London before becoming Surveyor of Public Works in Shropshire.

Through Telford’s work on various castles, churches, and prisons, he became established as an architect. His first of 40 major bridge projects around Shropshire was designed in 1790. By 1793, he was developing the Ellesmere Canal, an ambitious project to link the ironworks of Wrexham with Chester via Shropshire. He invented multiple new techniques for the project, and was soon developing the road networks that cemented his legacy. In later years, he served as first president of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

Learn More

Civil engineers play a crucial role in engineering the structural solutions of tomorrow and plan, design, construct, and operate the infrastructure essential to our modern lives. As a student in the online Master of Science in Civil Engineering program, you can enhance your quantitative decision-making skills and learn how to justify managerial decisions with data. You will also explore the capabilities of modern management technologies and discover how to successfully leverage these tools to maximize efficiencies in your projects and on your teams.


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