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-By Henry Petroski

Last summer, I traveled with a group of engineers to the United Kingdom to celebrate civil engineering history and heritage and returned to the United States assured that the profession is in very civilized hands on the other side of the Atlantic. The first event we attended was a symposium in honor of the bicentennial of Robert Stephenson's birth. Stephenson was an engineer of vision and daring whose early locomotives were essential to the development of the railroad and whose bridges enabled it to expand into new territory.

The Stephenson symposium was held at the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), located at One Great George Street, just around the corner from the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. The Civils' stately headquarters is such a prestigious address that members of Parliament use its rooms for important press briefings. The message of service to society embodied in the countless portraits of great engineers and their works that adorn the walls of the Institution cannot be lost on those who visit the building.

We left London from Euston Station—in front of which stands a statue of Robert Stephenson—to visit historic and millennial sites in the north. In Manchester, we rode in a restored early train carriage pulled by a replica of Stephenson's prototypical Planet. That locomotive operated on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, which was completed in 1830 by Stephenson and his father, George, whose image has graced the English five-pound note—another prominent recognition of an engineer and his accomplishments.

From Manchester, we went by coach to Wales, where the president of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and a representative of the Institution of Civil Engineers dedicated plaques declaring three bridges to be international historic civil engineering landmarks. The bridges include Robert Stephenson's tubular and Thomas Telford's suspension bridge at Conwy, and Telford's Menai Strait Suspension Bridge. Since I chair ASCE's History and Heritage Committee, which reviews landmark nominations, I was especially happy to see these world-class structures recognized by ASCE and ICE.

We also traveled to Newcastle, where we were welcomed to the site of Robert Stephenson's locomotive works. We had a chance to walk across the innovative “blinking-eye” Gateshead Millennium Bridge, a pedestrian and cycle crossing that opens like an eyelid to allow shipping to pass. From the striking arch-and-cable structure that so thoughtfully complements the historic structures upriver we were able to admire Robert Stephenson's famous high bridge across the Tyne.

Our final stop was Edinburgh, where we had the rare opportunity to go to the top of the Forth Bridge, an enduring steel symbol of Scotland built in 1890. From our 320-foot-high vantage point we were able to take in the entire countryside and at the same time appreciate the achievement of the bridge's engineers and the social context in which it was constructed.

That evening we visited the Falkirk Wheel, the spectacular millennium project that enables boats to travel without using locks between the Forth & Clyde and the Union canals, whose elevations are about 100 feet apart. We rode on a canal boat that was lifted on the wheel and enjoyed a farewell dinner in the visitor's center, through whose thoughtfully designed glass wall we could look up at this modern engineering achievement and work of art. We were proud to be engineers. And we were especially proud to be engineers treated with such gracious hospitality by our colleagues abroad.

Granted, the fact that we were traveling with the ASCE president may have opened doors and raised the level of hospitality that we received, but as with any engineering project it was ultimately the dedication, planning, and attention to detail of a single individual that made the experience what it was. The British organizer of our tour was Roland Paxton, chairman of the Panel on Historic Engineering Works of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He, who has done so much to recognize, protect, and restore engineering monuments throughout Britain, was without doubt the chief engineer among us.


Henry Petroski is the A. S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University.
His latest book, “Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design,” was recently published by Alfred A. Knopf.

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