To be honest, it’s difficult to exactly pinpoint in history when civil engineering became an acknowledged discipline. However, even when there was no name put to it, civil engineering was most certainly used to construct primitive structures. Early humans built basic structures and canoes to cross rivers, which was certainly done using early civil engineering methods. Once humans abandoned a nomadic existence and began to build, civil engineering was right there providing them with the skills and tools to do it. They just did not know at the time that thousands of years later, these very skills would one day be called “civil engineering.”
Civil engineering has been a fact of life since the dawn of the human era. You can go back over 4,000 years to see clear examples of civil engineering at work. Just look at what the ancient Egyptians were able to accomplish long before there were cranes and drones. In fact, one of the first documented engineers of the ancient era was Imhotep, who built the famous stepped pyramid for King Djoser. To this day, the stepped pyramid still stands.
Yet, the line was a bit blurred between architecture and civil engineering. It could be said that Imhotep was both architect and engineer. It was not until modern times that a clear distinction was made between architects and civil engineers. Throughout ancient history, most structural design and engineering were done by stonemasons and carpenters. The knowledge underpinning their methods was passed down through the generations and retained in guilds. Still, these early methods were not without problems. Ancient infrastructure was often quite repetitive and did not innovate quickly.
Civil Engineering During the 18th and 19th Centuries
It was not until the 18th century that the term “civil engineering” was coined. The first civil engineering school was opened in 1747 in France. It was called The National School of Bridges and Highways. The first self-proclaimed civil engineer was a man named John Smeaton. Smeaton would eventually form the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers, who acted as leaders in the profession. And although this was more a social society than a technical group, the networking, and conversation that took place there influenced the design and construction of more than a few buildings of the 18th century.
It was not until 1818 in London that the world’s first engineering society was set up as the Institution of Civil Engineers. It was in 1828 that the Institution of Civil Engineers received a Royal Charter and formally recognized civil engineering as a profession. Here is what the charter said:
Civil engineering is the application of physical and scientific principles, and its history is intricately linked to advances in understanding of physics and mathematics throughout history. Because civil engineering is a wide ranging profession, including several separate specialized sub-disciplines, its history is linked to knowledge of structures, material science, geography, geology, soil, hydrology, environment, mechanics and other fields.
Civil Engineering in the Modern Era
Civil engineering involves the design, construction, and maintenance of roads, bridges and structures. The science of civil engineering includes everything from soil science to geology and other applied fields. As such, the history of civil engineering is closely intertwined with the advancement in associated sciences and disciplines.
In the United States, it wasn’t until 1819 that civil engineering was first taught as a discipline. It was at Norwich University that students could enroll in courses on applied civil engineering techniques, methodologies and designs.
The American Society of Civil Engineers was the first national engineering society in the United States. It was founded in 1852 with members related to the civil engineering profession located all over the world. Anyone could join and exists to this day as a great resource for civil engineers and associated workers.
Now, in the modern era, the number of universities in the world that include civil engineering as a discipline has increased tremendously during the 19th and the 20th centuries, indicating the importance of this discipline.
New Technologies in Civil Engineering
A number of new technologies have again transformed civil engineering in the modern era. From high-tech machinery and novel new materials to testing equipment, drones, and other sciences, the civil engineering of today looks quite different than it did even 50 years ago.
Yet, some technologies have had outsized impacts. Take computer-aided design as one example (CAD). CAD technologies allowed engineers to use technology to design better buildings, streamline processes and save time and money. From manufacturing to fabrication and erection, CAD and even CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) have transformed the way projects are designed and completed. Three-dimensional software, BIM technologies, and laser-scanning tools have also provided new ways for civil engineers to do their jobs. From efficient building designs to bridges and other huge, complex structures, modern technology allows construction to be done faster and with fewer errors.
And here at McNeil Engineering, we take pride in looking to these ancient designs for inspiration. While we rely on modern methods, we pay our respects to those who came before us! Thanks for joining us on this historical look back!