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Civil Engineering

Civil engineering addresses the design, construction, maintenance, and reconstruction of the built environment. The literature of civil engineering is concerned with society's infrastructure: the buildings, transport systems, water supply, and public health that people enjoy or aspire to; their design, their construction, and the inventions and scientific ideas that make them possible. It is a literature that barely existed in 1800 yet by 1920 filled libraries like the Institution of Civil Engineers in London and the United Engineering Center in New York.

The term “civil engineer” first came into use in English in the second half of the eighteenth century, probably first coined by John Smeaton around 1760. For Smeaton, civil engineering embraced all aspects of engineering outside the traditional military sphere, but elsewhere it was a more clearly defined profession. The term ingegnero civile came into use in Italian states at much the same time, followed shortly thereafter by similar terms in other European countries. This is the period in which the literature of civil engineering can first be identified as a distinctive body of work, rather than as a topic touched on in more general scientific or technical works.

However, the defining works of civilization that form the province of the modern civil engineer—aqueducts, bridges, harbors, irrigation schemes, roads, large buildings—predate this literature by millennia. It is evident, therefore, that before the arrival of printing in Europe, drawings and textual descriptions and other written records of these works existed, and in some cases can still be found. Some early works from the Roman era are well known—Vitruvius' manual of building, De architectura (1486), and Frontinus' account of the aqueducts of Rome, De aquaeductu (c. 1487), for example—as they were printed in the Renaissance and have been in print more or less continuously since then.

While one can find early printed books with material illustrative of engineering practice (for example, Agricola's De re metallica, 1556), these are unusual. Few early architectural works give much indication of how buildings were erected. Engineering science received little attention beyond Galileo's Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche (1638), one of the first works to deal with the strength of materials and beam theory. In the seventeenth century a growing number of works addressed “hydraulic engineering.” Cornelius Vermuyden's A Discourse Touching the Drayning of the Great Fennes (1642) exemplifies the significant participation of Dutch engineers on flood defense and land drainage works around Europe, and was also one of the first engineering reports published in English.

Printed reports, prepared by engineers for clients on the viability or progress of works, dominated English civil engineering literature from the early seventeenth century until the 1830s. Early reports were largely on drainage schemes, then canals, and later on railways, and nearly two thousand have been identified by the civil engineering bibliographer Alec Skempton. The reason there were so many of these reports was that clients had money and wanted to encourage investment or inform shareholders. This form, “gray literature” in modern parlance, continues, but is rarely found in libraries. Engineering businesses kept such reports, in the early days generally in manuscript copy ledgers and later in privately printed reports. In Europe the vagaries of war affected survival of these records into the 1950s. Most businesses were small family concerns, and unless descendants followed in the businesses, families would have had little interest in their retention. However, enough have survived to give an indication of how such businesses organized their records, ranging from the chaotic to the chronological.

Early engineers collected printed reports and copied by hand reports to which they had no other access. When John Smeaton died, his contemporaries realized the significance of his reports, which were compiled into three volumes, with a fourth volume of scientific papers (Reports of the Late John Smeaton, 1812). For many early nineteenth-century engineers, these volumes formed a body of knowledge from which they could develop their skills. With the advent of journals, the need to collect such reports receded and it was only in the case of major works, particularly bridges, that engineers' reports received wide dissemination. Major projects like these warranted monographs, and Calvin Woodward's History of the St. Louis Bridge (1881), and Wilhom Westhofen's Forth Railway Bridge (1890) are fine examples of the style. An additional category of report, ton accidents and failures, provides fascinating source material on what could go wrong with a major project.

Reports in the form of case studies are one staple of engineering journals, the other being scientific papers. Periodicals, as the name implies, require either a professional market or professional body as sponsor, and in the engineering field these began to appear in the late eighteenth century, although in English-speaking countries the first journals did not appear until the 1830s. Articles of interest to civil engineers were published in the proceedings of the great scientific academies starting in the seventeenth century. In the second half of the eighteenth century, more practically focused journals appeared, such as the Transactions of the Society … for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce. Some commercial journals, led by the Repertory of Arts and Manufacturers, built their content from patents, correspondence from inventors, and engineering reports, but their audience was not specifically civil engineers. In continental Europe from the 1790s there were short-lived publications around the state engineering schools, and then in 1826 the Russian state civil engineering school began publishing Journal des voies de communication in Russian and French, and the civil engineering journal can be said to have been born. In the United States the American Railroad Journal, which started publication in 1832 as the Rail-Road Journal, is arguably the first English-language engineering journal. The British Institution of Civil Engineers published its first volume of Transactions in 1836, and its Proceedings, still published today, began in 1837. By the 1860s a whole range of journals were being published, some with a largely financial focus, such as the railway press, and others with a high level of technical content and journalistic standards, for example The Engineer and Engineering in Britain and Allgemeine Bauzeitung in Austria. By 1870 most European countries had their own civil engineering journals, frequently issued by their local societies or state engineering bodies, and, starting in 1869, [David] Van Nostrand's Eclectic Engineering Magazine established high standards of technical journalism in the United States.

Monographs follow a similar pattern, becoming numerous only after 1850. The modern textbook assumes an academic market, which did not exist outside France and some German states. It also assumes an established body of knowledge, which was also rare prior to the mid-nineteenth century. When monographs found a market in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, they concentrated on core aspects of design. In the structural field, practitioners wrote for their colleagues, as did, for example, Robert H. Bow in his Treatise on Bracing (1874); but increasingly academics wrote these monographs for engineering students.

The precursor of the modern engineering textbook is Bernard de Belidor's La science des ingénieurs (1729), a work not superseded until Joseph M. Sganzin's Programmes ou résumés des leçons du cours de construction (1806), which was based on his lectures at the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées. Sganzin's book was translated into English in 1827 and became the basis for Dennis H. Mahan's Elementary Course of Civil Engineering (1838) for cadets at the U.S. Military Academy. Without state support, the cost of such works was prohibitive, and specialist publishers such as the London-based John Weale issued books in parts. A fine example of Weale's work is his five-volume Theory, Practice, and Architecture of Bridges (1839), while an American example can be found in George Duggan's Specimens of the Stone, Iron and Wood Bridges (1850), which contains some of the finest illustrations of early American railroad bridges. For sheer quality of illustration, however, nothing can compare with Leon Molinos and C. Pronnier's Traité théorique et pratique de la construction des ponts métalliques (1857). The need to inform aspirant engineers through illustration reached its apex with such books; textbooks took their place in the later nineteenth century.

Early in the nineteenth century, Peter Barlow, of Britain's Royal Military Academy, produced his Essay on the Strength and Stress of Timber. While it mainly focused on demonstrating the viability of various beam and column formulas for timber, the first edition (1817) included test data on iron, and by mid-century the book was enriched with data from a range of sources. By that time textbooks, led by Claude-Louis Navier's in France, explained the use of elastic methods of analysis and relied on graphic methods to facilitate calculations. These subjects dominated late nineteenth-century textbooks, as exemplified by Augustus Du Bois's The Strains in Framed Structures (1883; 5th ed., rev. and enl., 1890). These works were not solely the work of academics, as indicated by Mansfield Merriman and Henry S. Jacoby's Text-book on Roofs and Bridges (2nd ed., 1896), a collaboration by a consultant and an academic, and David Steinman's Suspension Bridges and Cantilevers (1911; 2nd rev. ed., 1913), a textbook by one of the world's leading bridge engineers. The turn of the twentieth century saw the emergence of triumphal books on civil engineering, such as Archibald Williams' How It Is Done; or, Victories of the Engineer (1908), aimed largely at younger readers.

An important component of engineering literature was issued by manufacturers and suppliers. Sometimes indistinguishable from promotional material, such works report on the latest innovations in engineering, providing the properties of materials and products and relevant test results. Early examples include broadsheets issued by ironmongers, and trade catalogues issued by manufacturers of cast-iron products. At its most informative, these handbooks are indistinguishable from contemporary textbooks. The Carnegie Steel Company's Pocket Companion (1900) is a widely cited example of this corporate literature. This genre, while of interest to engineers, is rarely seen in libraries. National libraries have largely disregarded it, but specialist collections can be found at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Science Museum in London.

Engineering biographies appeared in the eighteenth century, classically as introductory essays to the collected works of the engineers Jean-Radolphe Perronet and John Smeaton. The benchmark was raised by The Life of Thomas Telford, Civil Engineer (1838), a curious work that is part autobiography, part collection of reports, and expensively illustrated by an atlas of his major works, setting a standard with which few could compete. The Institution of Civil Engineers, founded in London in 1818, encouraged biographical papers on leading engineers and their works and inventions with limited success in its early years. The master promoter of self-help Samuel Smiles created a celebratory genre with his Lives of the Engineers (3 vols., 1861–62). Although it is easy to criticize his work as hagiography, Smiles's biographies of British engineers inspired many to admire and join the profession. Autobiographies are varied in quality, but even when self-published, they offer valuable insight to engineering practices in the nineteenth century.

In the United States, the American Society of Civil Engineers—now the world's largest civil engineering society—was founded in 1852, and its members quickly began producing important engineering texts. For instance, William Burr, an expert on the construction of canals in an era of imperial expansion, wrote four important texts on construction techniques, while a number of significant works appeared on large-scale engineering projects in the American West.

In both America and England, the Railway Age saw the rise of the contractor, whose Croesusian wealth could astound contemporaries. Many of the leading British contractors were the subjects of privately published biographies, such as The Life and Labours of Mr Brassey by Arthur Helps (1872). It is notable, however, that in the next century biographies became less substantial, perhaps reflecting the declining prestige of the profession, and modern engineering biography, in Britain at least, concentrates on the innovative Isambard Brunel, whose influence was great but who often overshadows other important contributors to the profession. American contractors and entrepreneurs, on the other hand, gained great public attention, both positive and negative, and remain subjects of keen historical interest.

From the first emergence of scientific journals there was a need for indices and summaries of contents, and the early technical press of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries often summarized these societies' activities, providing lists of patents that they also often contained. Patent offices began to offer thorough published indices only later in the century, as with the U.S. Patent Office's A List of Patents Granted by the United States from 1790 … to 1836 (1872). Thomas Young, in his Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy (1807), attempted a comprehensive organization of scientific literature, which embraced some engineering topics, while in France Pierre Lesage attempted a summation of engineering in Recueil de divers mémoires (1806). Starting in 1823 the Repertorium der Technischen Literatur summarized the German scholarship. The Institution of Civil Engineers began publishing very selective abstracts in 1874, while in the United States the Engineering Index, the essential aid for most twentieth-century engineering libraries, first appeared in 1884. However, the latter only aspired to significant international coverage after the First World War, having been taken over by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1918.

Exhibitions of scientific and technical inventions grew with professional societies and were seen as a means of improving the commerce and power of nations. England's Great Exhibition of 1851 set the standard with its illustrated catalogues of exhibits and official reports of technical juries. Associated with these catalogues were national reports and extensive coverage in technical journals. Antoine Grille reported on public works at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, and official U.S. Commissioners reported on the earlier expositions in Vienna in 1873 and Paris in 1878 and 1889, while the French actually compiled their own guides to civil engineering exhibits at the 1878 exposition. International expositions attracted a large number of engineers and scientists and were often accompanied by technical conferences. In the late nineteenth century international groups were independently formed and established long-running series of international conferences on topics like navigation, railways, and materials testing. There were also gatherings of experts on topics like the Suez and later the Panama Canal as governments felt the need to call on international expertise. By the start of the twentieth century the main characteristics of modern civil engineering literature were all in place. Since then new specializations, such as geotechnical engineering, have emerged, and the Internet has opened up access to the publications of a wide diversity of research bodies, governments, and organizations, presenting major opportunities for scholars worldwide.


  • Chrimes, Mike. “Geotechnical Publications Before Geotechnique.” Geotechnique 58, no. 5:343–355 (2008).
  • Chrimes, Mike. Introduction to Catalogue of Periodical Publications in the ICE Library. London: ICE, 1995.
  • Haskell, Daniel C. A Tentative Check-list of Early European Railway Literature, 1831–1848. Cambridge, MA: Baker Library, 1955.
  • Kurrer, Karl-Eugen. The History of the Theory of Structures: From Arch Analysis to Computational Mechanics. Berlin: Ernst & Sohn, 2008.
  • Peddie, Robert A. Railway Literature, 1556–1830: A Handlist. London: Grafton Press, 1931.
  • Skempton, Alec W. British Civil Engineering 1640–1840: A Bibliography of Contemporary Printed Reports, Plans and Books. London: Mansell, 1987.
  • Timoshenko, Stephen P. History of Strength of Materials. New York: McGraw Hill, 1953.

—Mike Chrimes, Director, Engineering Policy and Innovation, Institution of Civil Engineers

Collection Facts

Date Range:
601 monographs; 275,098 pages
Source Institution:
Huntington Library
The construction of the St. Louis (Eads) Bridge across the Mississippi, completed in 1874, is chronicled in C. M. Woodward’s History of the St. Louis Bridge (1881).
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