Last summer, I traveled with a group
of engineers to the United Kingdom to celebrate civil engineering
history and heritage
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
birth. Stephenson was an engineer of vision and daring whose early
locomotives were essential to the development of the railroad and whose
it to expand into new territory.
The Stephenson symposium was held at
the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), located at One Great George
the corner from the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. The
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
works that adorn the walls of the Institution cannot be lost on those
who visit the building.
We left London from Euston Stationin front of which
stands a statue of Robert Stephensonto 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 noteanother 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
That evening we visited the Falkirk Wheel,
the spectacular millennium project that enables boats to travel without
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
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
His latest book, Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect
Design, was recently published by Alfred A. Knopf.