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The sustainability of civil engineering

By David Muir Wood


The definition of civil engineering is a historical curiosity. Originally so called to distinguish it from military engineering, it was particularly concerned (in the eighteenth century, for example) with the provision of infrastructure for transport, hence the French emphasis on ponts et chaussées in their organisation of education and professional activity. But there is really no difference in the nature of the engineering performed by civil engineers and military engineers; a bridge or an airfield is a bridge or an airfield, whether it is provided for the general benefit of mankind or to enable an army to advance. Perhaps the speed of construction and the intended lifetime will be different – the latter often linked to the former. Charles Coulomb, who is remembered today by schoolchildren for his work on electrostatics (which makes him an electrical engineer), was employed by the army designing and constructing fortifications in Martinique (which makes him a military engineer), an activity which led to a nice piece of analysis which is familiar to all students of civil engineering today.

As a catch-all term, civil engineering in the early nineteenth century covered the broadest range of engineering activities but, for whatever reason, in the United Kingdom various splinter groups formed – mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, municipal engineers, aeronautical engineers, naval architects – and the engineering profession is littered with ‘Institutions’ for each of these professional groups which would originally have fallen under the aegis of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

The Institution of Civil Engineers was formed, we gather, in a coffee shop in Fleet Street (London) in 1818 by a group of engineers whose names are known but not familiar – it was only with the engagement of Thomas Telford as their first President that they gained some recognition, culminating in the award of a Royal Charter in 1828.  Here for the first time an attempt was made by Thomas Tredgold to define civil engineering in words that have a wonderful nineteenth century beauty and resonance.  The purpose of the newly fledged Institution was:

‘The general advancement of mechanical science, and more particularly for promoting the acquisition of that species of knowledge which constitutes the profession of a civil engineer; being the art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man, as the means of production and of traffic in states, both for external and internal trade, as applied in the construction of roads, bridges, aqueducts, canals, river navigation, and docks, for internal intercourse and exchange; and in the construction of ports, harbours, moles, breakwaters, and light-houses, and in the art of navigation by artificial power, for the purposes of commerce; and in the construction and adaptation of machinery, and in the drainage of cities and towns.’

Many of those examples have been lost to other institutions but the phrase ‘the art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man’ has remained. How would we describe civil engineering today?  Can we continue to subscribe to this wonderful phrase of Thomas Tredgold’s? Prince Charles, in a recent lecture to the Institution of Civil Engineers, calls with typical gallo-principian passion for civil engineers committed to sustainability to turn Tredgold’s phrase around and seek to be ‘directed by nature’, ‘to understand and to work in harmony with nature’s underlying patterns of behaviour.’

The problem with words is that you never know where they have been – or as Humpty-Dumpty said, ‘When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ The nuances associated with Tredgold’s words in 1828 are somewhat lost in dictionary definitions in 2012. It is the absence of any timescale that leaves the phrase open to attack. If we interpret ‘man’ as representing the human race, which implicitly includes our children and our children’s children, then ‘the use and convenience of man’ contains a future positive intention of sustainability with regard to the sources of power in nature which goes beyond the negative possibility of present exploitation.

Is it a lack of linguistic confidence which might make us reluctant to displace a well-loved nineteenth century phrase in favour of a twenty-first century revisionist version? Or is it a recognition that, as with the Book of Common Prayer, there is something special about the original words and language.? If we pause and seek to interpret them in our own time we will understand a deeper meaning relevant for us and for the future. If we insist on apparent instant sound-bite clarity we will be certain that we have understood without hearing and without thinking.

Prince Charles is right in urging civil engineers to concern themselves more vigorously with sustainability. But I do not think that we need to discard Thomas Tredgold as we do so.

David Muir Wood is Emeritus Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Bristol and Professor of Geotechnical Engineering, University of Dundee. He is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and author of Civil Engineering: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2012).

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Image credit: Roman aqueduct Pont du Gard by rzdeb, iStockphoto.

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One Response to “The sustainability of civil engineering”
  1. Maybe it is the dialogue that is the important thing, rather than changing the Charter’s wording. As part of that process however, I do think the Charter’s wording deserves a very careful look, scrutiny even. Words are a powerful instrument. As some would put it: “words can kill”.

    Here is a few words I put to the nce in reply to PoW’s address, earlier this year. It wasn’t published to my knowledge. I think it is the ethical dimension that we “must fix” before sustainability can truly be put at the civil engineer’s heart.

    From: Katja Leyendecker
    Date: 13 February 2012 19:25
    Subject: Comment
    To: “ncceedit@emap.com”
    Cc: Antony Oliver

    Prince Charles, the priceless patron! Yes, we engineers must wake up and smell that (fairly-sourced and organic) coffee. It’s us, who must put the ethics (back) into engineering, turning the profession from mere reactors into reactionaries. I suppose we’ve all had the experience: over-run by uninformed clients, lead by short-term gains and the presumed unaffordability of greener solutions, in hard pursuit of vested self interest. Sounds familiar? For any change to happen, good communication and a clear vision are key… not really primary engineering skills, therein lies the challenge.

    Katja Leyendecker

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