March Prism - 2002
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Remembering the Future

- By Henry Petroski

Two notable 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 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.

In the 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.

The very 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.

To have 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.

At midcentury, 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.”

As it 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 societies followed.

There 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.

Now, on 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.


Henry 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.