Orange County Branch Newsletter

November 2009

Secretary's Column

Civil Engineering, Defined

By Tapas Dutta, PE



Civil Engineering is the professional engineering discipline that deals with the planning, design, construction, operation and maintenance of the physical and naturally built environment such as bridges, roadways, buildings, canals, dams, and water and sewer systems.  Civil engineering is the oldest engineering discipline after military engineering and was so defined to distinguish it from military engineering.  In essence, civil engineers affect all of civil society, from individual home owners to international companies.

Engineering has been an aspect of life since the beginnings of human existence. Civil Engineering may be considered to have its genesis between 4000 BCE and 2000 BCE in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia when humans started to abandon a nomadic existence and thus needed to construct more permanent shelters. Transportation Engineering became increasingly important with the development of the wheel and sailing.  The Pyramids in Egypt (built circa 2700 BCE to 2500 BCE) are the earliest known instances of large structure construction. The Indus Valley Civilization centered on the major cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa (circa 2600 BCE to 1900 BCE) included roadways, temples, public baths and an elaborate sewer system.  Other civil engineering constructions of note in the ancient world include the Parthenon by Iktinos in Ancient Greece (447 BCE to 438 BCE), the Appian Way by Roman engineers (circa 312 BC) and the Great Wall of China by General Meng T’ien under orders from Ch’in Emperor Shih Huang Ti (circa 220 BC). The Roman Empire had civil structures including aqueducts, harbors, bridges, dams and roads.

Until modern times there was no clear distinction between civil engineering and architecture and the terms engineer and architect were used interchangeably, referring to the same person.  In the 18th century, the term civil engineering began to be used to distinguish it from military engineering.

The first self-proclaimed civil engineer was John Smeaton (1724-1792) an English engineer who is often regarded as the “father of civil engineering”.  He was responsible for the design of bridges, canals, harbors and lighthouses.  He is credited for developing a pyrometer to study material expansion and a whirling speculum (a maritime navigation aid).  He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1753, and in 1759 won the Copley Medal for his research into the mechanics of waterwheels and windmills. His 1759 paper "An Experimental Enquiry Concerning the Natural Powers of Water and Wind to Turn Mills and Other Machines Depending on Circular Motion" addressed the relationship between pressure and velocity for objects moving in air, and his concepts were subsequently developed to devise the 'Smeaton Coefficient'.  Recommended by the Royal Society, Smeaton designed the third Eddystone Lighthouse (1755-1759). He pioneered the use of 'hydraulic lime' (a form of mortar which will set under water) and developed a technique involving dovetailed blocks of granite in the building of the lighthouse.  His lighthouse remained in use until 1877 when - with the rock underlying the structure's foundations beginning to erode - it was dismantled and partially rebuilt at Plymouth Hoe where it is known as Smeaton's Tower.  He is important in the history, rediscovery of, and development of modern cement, because he identified the compositional requirements needed to obtain "hydraulicity" in lime, work which led ultimately to the invention of Portland cement.

In 1818, the Institution of Civil Engineers was founded in London; in 1828 the institution received a Royal Charter, formally recognizing civil engineering as a profession.

Founded in 1852, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) represents more than 147,000 members of the civil engineering profession worldwide, and is America's oldest national engineering society.

The first private college to teach Civil Engineering in the United States was Norwich University, founded in 1819. The first civil engineering degree to be awarded in the United States was by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1835.   The first such degree to be awarded to a woman was by Cornell University to Nora Stanton Blatch in 1905.

Notable civil engineers in the profession include:

  • John Blume (1909-2002), considered the “father of earthquake engineering”
  • Elbert Dysart Botts (1893-1962), Caltrans engineer and researcher, creator of the freeway Botts Dots
  • Arthur Casagrande (1902-1981), major contributor to Soil Mechanics
  • Henry Darcy  (1803-1858), hydraulics engineer, famous for Darcy’s Law
  • Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923), structural engineer, designed  the Eiffel Tower
  • Clifford Holland (1883-1924), tunnel engineer, builder of the Holland Tunnel in New York City
  • Fazlur Khan (1929-1982), structural engineer and designer of the Sears Towers
  • William Barclay Parsons (1859-1932), civil engineer and founder of Parsons Brinckerhoff

There are also a number of public figures who were trained in civil engineering, but are famous (and infamous) for other reasons.  Hu Jintao, the current president of the Peoples Republic of China has a degree in Hydraulics Engineering.  Fidel Valdez Ramos holds a Master’s degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Illinois, and was also the President of the Philippines between 1992 and 1998. Carlos Slim Helú, a Mexican businessman in telecommunications and currently the third richest man in the world studied civil engineering.  Boris Yeltsin is a civil engineer and so was Yasser Arafat.  Florentino Pérez Rodríguez, the current president of Real Madrid, one of the premier soccer clubs in the world, is a civil engineer.

I am privileged to be a Civil Engineer. 

Related Groups/Committees

Sponsors