anniversaries are occurring this year: the bicentennial of the United
States Military Academy at West Point, chartered by Congress in 1802,
and the sesquicentennial of the American Society of Civil Engineers,
founded in New York City in 1852. Each of these institutions is naturally
celebrating the occasion in its own way, but they are also cooperating
in sponsoring a Web-based engineering design contest, with the national
finals taking place at West Point next month. In this contest, K-12
students are using the graphically appealing and user-friendly West
Point Bridge Designer software to create and test a truss spanning a
divide (see http://bridgecontest.usma.edu/).
This symbolic bridge building between military and civil engineers brings
the professions full circle and may signal a new era in engineering,
an era that will resemble the past more than it does the present.
early decades of the 19th century, the U.S. Military Academy was the
only educational institution in America producing engineers of any kind.
The alternatives were to go abroad, often to France, for study, to stay
at home and learn engineering on one's own, or to learn by apprenticeship.
Civilian academic institutions granted their first formal engineering
degrees in the 1830s, but it was not until the Morrill Land Grant Act
was passed in 1862 that engineering education in America really took
off. Still, women engineers were virtually unheard of until the 20th
century. The first woman to receive a civil engineering degree in the
United States is believed to be Nora Stanton Blatch, Cornell University
Class of 1905.
designation civil engineer predated the founding of West
Point. The term was coined by the Englishman John Smeaton (1724-1792),
who began his career as a mathematical instrument maker but who ended
it as a pre-eminent engineer. He declared himself specifically to be
a civil engineer to distinguish his work on windmills, canals, lighthouses,
and the like from that of military engineers. Smeaton also asserted
his independence as a professional consulting engineer, including the
right to work on projects of his own choosing and to give his expert
opinion on engineering matters freely before Parliament and in the courts.
a means of sharing experiences both technical and legal, in 1771 Smeaton
and like-minded engineers formed the Society of Civil Engineers, which
in time foundered but later was revived as an old boys' dining club.
In 1818, a younger set of engineers, who wished more for an educational
than a social organization, established the Institution of Civil Engineers.
The term civil engineer was meant in the Smeatonian sense, but like
most organizations, the ICE became more rigid and exclusive with age.
In particular, it was not fully responsive to the new breed of engineers
spawned by the railroad mania that swept Britain in the 1840s, and so
the rival Institution of Mechanical Engineers was formed in 1847.
the term civil engineer thus had two meanings: one denoting all nonmilitary
engineers and the other the narrower group dealing almost exclusively
with roads, bridges, and other fixed structures. When the American Society
of Civil Engineers was founded in New York in 1852, its name was meant
to be taken in the former sense, and the organization was meant to be
inclusive, welcoming as members civil, geological, mining and
mechanical engineers, architects and other persons who, by profession,
are interested in the advancement of science.
did in England, growing specialization within the engineering profession
soon manifested itself in the creation of new societies, with the American
Institute of Mining Engineers being founded in 1871 and the American
Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1880. As civilian engineering had
lost touch with its roots in the military, so had a number of increasingly
narrow engineering disciplines evolved and the formation of their own
have been moments of cooperative spirit, as when the International Congress
of Engineering was held in conjunction with the 1893 World's Columbian
Exposition, leading among other things to the founding of the Society
for the Promotion of Engineering Education. In 1952, the Centennial
of Engineering was held in Chicago, where 65 professional organizations
gathered to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of ASCE. Unfortunately,
in the 1990s, the societies appeared to be moving apart, both figuratively
and literally with the closing of the United Engineering Center and
the movement of ASCE headquarters out of New York.
the occasion of coincident anniversaries, American civil engineers are
at least symbolically returning to their roots in the Military Academy
at West Point. It is sobering that this is occurring as engineers of
all kinds find themselves increasingly having to think about war with
terrorists and about how to design homeland structures and systems against
attack. The engineering specialties and specialized societies that have
developed since Smeaton first distinguished between civilian and military
engineering are not likely to coalesce soon, but now there is a heightened
awareness that we are all pursuing the same goals of protecting, preserving,
and promoting the same quality of life. Under the cloud of war we can
still be optimistic about the future of engineering and society.
Petroski, the A.S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering
and a professor of history at Duke University, is chairman
of ASCE's History and Heritage Committee.
His latest book, Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer,
is being published this spring.