Understanding Historical Background of Civil Engineering

Understanding Civil Engineering

Engineering is a broad term that includes many disciplines, all of which have in common the application of science for practical purposes. “Applied science” is approximately equivalent with “engineering.” While people have built many things that today are within the scope of civil engineering – buildings, dams, canals, roads, bridges – it is the scientific aspect to the design and building of such construction that defines modern civil engineering. For the science museum professional without a background in civil engineering, a basic knowledge of what the field consists of can open the door to insights about innovative exhibits, important themes to communicate to their audiences, and opportunities for collaboration.

Historical Background

Why is it called “civil” engineering? Originally, the term civil engineering was introduced to distinguish it from “military” engineering. Military engineering, dating back many centuries, was devoted to such kinds of construction as castle walls, fortress towers, defensive canals and moats, and siege equipment. The term civil engineering was needed as the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution matured, and as people who came to be known as civil engineers had full-time careers using applied science to design the construction that the public used in daily life.


Things like a huge lighthouse tower built at Alexandria over two thousand years ago, or suspension bridges in China a thousand years ago, might be called “civil engineering works,” but they were not the result of what we call “civil engineering” today, which only materialized when physics and mathematics rapidly grew in the last few centuries. In the next chapter we will see that the modern science museum also had ancient origins, and that like civil engineering, its rapid development only began in the eighteenth century. The parallel timeline of the development of civil engineering has similar milestones with the science museum – ancient origins, but only as of the 1700s and 1800s did it develop into a form recognizably similar with the field and profession of today.


Some of the mathematical basis of civil engineering dates back at least to ancient Greek times. The lever principle, for example, which Archimedes (287-212 BC) understood and described, is still extensively used in civil engineering calculations. It was not till Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), however, that several of the features of modern engineering and science began to become well-formed, such as the idea that the best test of a proposition or concept was an experiment. (Today we say “put the idea to the test.”


Galileo used the term cimento, or ordeal, in other words to “put the idea through the ordeal of the test.”) Many of the science learning goals one finds in state science education standards today reflect a view of the world that only dates from the time of Galileo. By chance, the same year Galileo died, Isaac Newton was born. Newton (1642-1727) was to greatly advance fields in what is now known as physics from the level they were in as of the time of Galileo. Principles first mathematically described by Newton, such as the action of forces, gravity, or inertia, are still used extensively in civil engineering today.


The story of modern civil engineering begins to move quickly following the era of Newton. In countries such as France and Britain, people combined practical knowledge of materials and construction with the mathematics and science that were then available. Combined with the great economic pull of the Industrial Revolution, people started to specialize in civil engineering. For example, the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées (School of bridges and roads) was established by the French government in Paris in 1747. The Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées was to be the intellectual and professional home of many of the leading names in the young field of civil engineerings, such as Claude-Louis Navier (1785-1836). Structural engineers still are guided by Navier’s Theorem, and engineers working with water systems are familiar with the Navier-Stokes equations.


John Smeaton (1724-1792), who gained his first engineering experience in the design of wind and water mills in England, was one of the first to use the English term “ civil engineer.” He was put in charge of the design and construction of Eddy stone Lighthouse, one of the first structures in the modern era to use concrete and advance that material beyond its early usage in Roman construction. Today, concrete is essential to almost all civil engineering projects. He was central to the founding of the Society of Civil Engineers in 1771.


The Institution of Civil Engineers was founded in 1818, which remains an active professional organization in the United Kingdom to this day. It was founded in a coffee house – quite an influential institution in history. For example, one of the first insurance enterprises, Lloyd’s of London, was founded in 1688 in such a place, namely Edward Lloyd’s coffee house. Known as “penny universities” for their price of admission and the abundance of publications and open discussion available, coffee houses continue to be “informal learning” centers today.


Thomas Telford (1757-1834), a Scottish engineer, was one of the first presidents of ICE. His career included record-setting bridges, roads, and canals. As the young United States grew rapidly in the 1800s, civil engineering became a growth industry, although university-trained engineers were not common till after the Civil War. One of the fortes of American civil engineering as compared to European turned out to be the suspension bridge, with important early developments in that structural form made by James Finley (1762-1828), Charles Ellet (1810-1862), and John August Roebling (1806-1869). As of the latter half of the 1900s, civil engineering becomes recognizably similar to today’s profession. At the same time, science museums begin to take on their modern form. The nature of the civil engineering profession in academia, government, and practice, and its demographic aspects.

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