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Engineers of the Millennium

CE News salutes the engineers who shaped the future of civil engineering

By Cory Sekine-Pettite

Engineering history is a topic that, as we found in doing research for this article, is a somewhat neglected area of study. Certainly, in grade school and even college men such as John Smeaton or Isambard Brunel were never mentioned—even in many university engineering programs. But can anyone who knows of these men deny their importance to our history and to our current way of life? Did they not contribute as much or perhaps more to our society as some Revolutionary general?

To that end, CE News has compiled a list of 10 (two of the engineers are paired) of the most influential engineers of the last 1,000 years. With such a daunting task, we decided not to rank them or compare them, but to simply list them in alphabetical order because it is certainly debatable as to which engineering pioneer had the greatest influence on our society and our profession today. The intention of this article is not to spark debate, however, but to merely bring attention to the fact that we haven't learned enough about what people and what circumstances have brought us to this place. Professional engineers alone, not to mention the general public, have a vague appreciation for the contributions to our infrastructure and our health that the men on this list have made. If you learn something by reading this, please pass that knowledge along to ensure that your colleagues, friends, and family have a better understanding about why we have paved highways, an underground sewer system, and electricity powered by some of the most awe-inspiring dams in the world.

Joseph Aspdin (1779-1855), a builder in Leeds, England, took out a patent in 1824 for a new type of cement he called "Portland," so named because of the product's similarity to a naturally occurring building stone found in Portland, England. To create his cement, Aspdin took limestone road surfacing that had been crushed under the wheels of carts, added finely divided clay to the powder so that when burned (in his kitchen) it would form a strong cement. Portland cement was a huge commercial success and in order to maintain his secrecy, Aspdin was known to sprinkle some "secret" salts to throw off the competition. His invention laid the foundation for an industry which takes mountains of raw materials today and turns it into a cement powder so fine that one pound contains 150 billion grains.

Daniel Bernoulli (1700-1782) and Leonhard Euler (1707-1783) were long-time friends and colleagues, working in St. Petersburg, Russia as professors of Mathematics. Bernoulli published works on the statics and dynamics of fluids and made the first observations to the equation that bears his name. Euler had a greater interest in math than did his peer. In fact, he developed the basic equations of fluid motion named for his friend and published hundreds of his own papers, the titles of which took up 50 pages of text to list at his eulogy.

Claude H. Birdseye (1878-1938) was a founding member and the first president of the American Society of Photogrammetry, begun in 1934 and currently referred to as the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing. An early pioneer in photogrammetry, Birdseye was commissioned to survey the dangerous terrain of Black Canyon, seven miles northeast of Boulder City, Nev., and the (then) future site of Hoover Dam. With conventional surveying methods virtually useless to perform with so many cliffs carved out of the rocky soil by the mighty Colorado River, Birdseye helped develop photogrammetry by installing an elaborate network of survey controls in the canyon. Seven years prior, he led an expedition into the canyon through the Colorado's most treacherous rapids to examine possible dam sites. Completed in 1936, Hoover Dam rose more than 726 feet (the second highest in the country) up the canyon and created Lake Mead, the largest man-made lake/reservoir in the U.S.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859), the son of Marc Isambard Brunel who is famous for constructing the Thames Tunnel, was born in Portsmouth, England. Just like his father, Brunel's career was marked by one ambitious project after another, but he would become best known for building much of England's rail lines. By the time he was 19, Brunel was resident engineer on his father's Thames Tunnel endeavor. In 1833, he finished a survey for the construction of a railway between London and Bristol, which was to be known as the Great Western Railway. Brunel's design included a broad gauge of seven feet for his locomotives, a decision that offered the advantage of greater stability at high speeds. In all, he was credited with attaching 1,600 miles of permanent railway for western England, the Midlands, and South Wales. He would later turn his attention to the seas, building the first ships to cross the Atlantic using only steam power.

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), the famous Italian artist, inventor, and scientist also contributed greatly to the world of engineering. After an elementary education and an apprenticeship to the artist Andrea del Verrocchio, Da Vinci traveled to Milan where in 1482 he was employed by the Duke of Milan as "painter and engineer of the duke." In this position, he gave advice on proposed cathedrals and was involved in hydraulic and mechanical engineering. When the French occupied Italy in the early 1500s, Da Vinci worked for them devising plans for castles and for the Adda Canal, which was to connect Milan to Lake Como. His well-known notebooks reveal the inventor's mechanical aptitude and passion for machines that ranged from complex cranes to drilling machines to underwater breathing equipment to the first flying machines. As a military engineer, he also created assault machines, pontoons, and a steam cannon.

Charles Ellet (1810-1862), was the first American to design a wire-cable suspension bridge in the United States, earning him the nickname 'American Brunel.' His engineering career began in 1828 with an appointment as surveyor and assistant engineer on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. In 1832, Congress rejected a proposal from Ellet to build a suspension bridge over the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., but 10 years later he was able to build his first wire-cable suspension bridge over the Schuylkill River in Fairmont, Penn. Spanning 858 feet, the bridge incorporated a technique that had been common in France for years, using a number of small wires together to make a single cable. Ellet went on to build several more bridges throughout the U.S. before the Civil War, including the world's first long-span wire-cable suspension bridge, which traversed the Ohio River in Wheeling, W.Va. at a central span of 1,010 feet.

John Loudon McAdam (1756-1836) was an engineer from England best remembered for his prowess at road building, particularly surfacing. After spending his youth in the United States, McAdam returned to Britain in 1783 and by 1827 was appointed Surveyor-General of all the roads in the U.K. His method, which would become known as 'macadamizing,' consisted of building roads with a base course of large stones laid on a compacted soil footing. A middle course of smaller stones would then be laid with a top course of gravel. Gutters at each end of a road carried away rainwater. By the end of the 19th century, most of the main roads in Europe were using this method. McAdam was a great promoter of road-building as a profession, authoring three books on the subject and offering great wages to entice more men into the field.

John Smeaton (1724-1792), born in the U.K., was the first in our profession to adopt the term 'civil engineer' to distinguish himself from the military engineers whose numbers greatly surpassed those of the civilian set. In 1771, he founded the Society of Civil Engineers, (renamed the Smeatonian Society after his death) the first professional engineering society. He is best known in Britain for the rebuilding of the Eddystone Lighthouse—a structure that still stands today. Smeaton also introduced many technical innovations to the profession, including an instrument that was able to measure the expansion characteristics of various materials. And he proved with his work on waterwheels and windmills that overshot wheel power was twice as efficient as the traditional method of undershot waterwheel power (flow of water against blades in the wheel).

Karl Terzaghi (1883-1963), known as the father of Soil Mechanics, introduced this new science with his theories of consolidation, lateral earth pressures, bearing capacity, and stability. He first presented his findings in Vienna in 1925 while working at Istanbul Technical University and Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey. Terzaghi authored several books on the subject including, Soil Mechanics Based Soil on Soil Physics, published in 1925 and, what is probably his definitive work, Theoretical Soil Mechanics, published in 1943. In this work he laid it all out: consolidation theory, settlement calculations, bearing capacity theory, lateral earth pressures and retaining walls, shear strength, and slope stability. In order for fellow engineers to apply his theories, this book also supplied design/analysis charts. His consulting activities took him all over the world and in 1938 during Germany's occupation of Austria, Terzaghi left his homeland and found himself in America, lecturing at Harvard University. Even after his retirement in 1956, Terzaghi couldn't escape requests to share his knowledge. He guest-lectured all over the country until his death, just after his 80th birthday.

Reprinted from CE News, 1999, with permission. Copyright 1999 by Civil Engineering News, Inc. (telephone 770/664/2812). All rights reserved.

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