The 19th century was the time when civil engineering produced great achievements, using the inventions of scientists and technologists, and gave the world several geniuses, whose names are now renowned. However, the achievements of the 20th-century civil engineering and its great names are worth mentioning as well and must not be forgotten. Nowadays, the development of civil engineering continues, including the involvement of women and minorities and the improvement of education, and the improvement of the safety of the constructions. Hence, the profession has no need in a new Brian Cox of engineering.
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For civil engineering, the 19th century was a remarkable period. It was the time of rapid development, and many great professionals, among which are I. Brunel and T. Telford, worked in that period. There were reasons for such a speedy advance. First, the discoveries and new inventions in the fields of science and technologies allowed civil engineers to employ more efficient methods and materials. It was the 19th century when people started using steam as a source of power (Wood, 2004). The theory of elasticity was formulated in a mathematically understandable way in the first half of the 19th century. Portland cement was composed, which allowed engineers to use a cheaper and more available cement for their constructions. Various types of reinforced concrete were invented with the use of ferrocement and steel reinforcement bars, steel and cast iron production was launched (which allowed replacing wrought the iron), steel construction started being possible, and all these events happened in the 19th century. The properties of structural materials were studied, as well as structural behaviour; elastic modulus was discovered. Power-driven mechanisation led to the growth of mechanical engineering (Musson, 2013).
Apart from that, Wood mentions “the entrepreneurial spirit of the time,” which allowed engineers to succeed even if they lacked theoretical background (2004). The sophistication of machine tools helped civil engineers to make progress with the time needed for construction (Musson 2013). The quick development of transport systems and infrastructure around the world, especially the mass construction of railroads, increased the demand for qualified civil engineers and their interaction with mechanical engineers. Engineers began a successful collaboration with iron industry owners. Due to the advance of steel production, a number of new professions interacting with engineers appeared. The 19th century is considered the golden age of engineering, and rightfully so.
Such a bright image of the rapidly advancing civil engineering makes the subsequent periods of time look pale in comparison. Nevertheless, it has to be recognized that the 20th century was no less fruitful than the previous hundred years, and it gave the world some “great names” as well. The technological advancements of the 19th century did not end in 1899; the development continued, bringing benefits to civil engineering. The truss theory for the design of reinforced concrete was modified, prestressed concrete was invented, Moment distribution method was developed by Hardy Cross (Wood, 2004). The compound of concrete was improved, the structural engineering theory advanced, essential steps were made for the improvement of the safety of steel constructions, high-rise constructions advanced, not to mention many other achievements of the 20th-century civil engineers (Heyman, 1999). Among them are the following names.
Robert Maillart (Switzerland), who improved the compound and use of reinforced concrete significantly, developed a three-hinged arch for bridge construction and had a serious impact on the future design of bridges. Jörg Schlaich (Germany), who had an influence on the design of bridges as well, and who sophisticated the design of long-span roofs; he developed the solar updraft power and invented new modes of reinforced concrete. Fazlur R. Khan (USA), one of the most influential civil engineers, who designed the 100-stage Hancock Center and the Willis Tower, the second-highest construction in the USA; he is considered a genius of skyscraper construction, and he brought significant improvements into the design of skyscrapers. Khan created a structural tube system for buildings. As can be seen, the 20th century had its great names as well. The problem is that nowadays, people have quite a specific perception of greatness. The achievements of science and technologies (and engineering) that are closer to us on the time scale are seen as less genial; the inventions of the far past look like a breakthrough, whereas the newer inventions look prettier. For instance, the invention of steam transport would cause more admiration of a today’s person that the invention of an aircraft carrier, however important the latter may be.
Because of such an attitude, it may seem that contemporary civil engineering needs a new genius, but that may not be true. Contemporary civil engineers face major challenges and solve problems, continuing to develop techniques, approaches and design. Civil engineers respond to the changes in society in both professional and educational spheres (Ramirez and Seco, 2012). Future civil engineers now receive a better education and training than they did in previous periods. The comprehensive theoretical education of an engineer, as it has a high influence on the safety of the constructions, is now one of the primary values of engineering, in contrast to the situation of the great 19th century, when it was considered that theory is unimportant (Musson, 2013). Unlike previous times, females and minorities now actively participate in civil engineering as professionals.
Nowadays, female engineers are not a rarity; the grows in the number of female faculty in the academic sphere of engineering is likely to encourage more and more of female students to pursue careers in engineering, so the number of female civil engineers will apparently grow even more (Leonard and Nicholls, 2013). To my opinion, civil engineering keeps its pace, and there is no need either to compare the present situation to the 19th century one for praising the latter nor to look for a genius.
In conclusion, despite the fact that the 19th-century civil engineering is often seen as the “golden time” for the profession, the 20th century was no less fruitful. Civil engineering nowadays keeps developing and improving, there is more diversity it the body of its professionals, and the satiation with safety is much better than in previous periods, so there is no need for a new genius.
Heyman, J. (1999). The science of structural engineering. London: Imperial College Press.
Leonard, K.M. and Nicholls, G.M. (2013). History and status of female faculty in civil engineering, Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education & Practice, 139 (3), pp. 218-225.
Musson, A.E. (2013). The engineering industry, in: Church, R. (ed) The dynamics of Victorian business. New York: Routledge, pp. 87-106.
Ramirez, F. and Seco, A. (2012). Civil Engineering at the Crossroads in the Twenty-First Century, Science and Engineering Ethics, 18 (4), pp. 681-687.
Wood, A.M. (2004). Civil engineering in context. London: Thomas Telford Publishing.