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The Life of Sir William Fairbairn, Bart
Chapter I - On the Profession of Engineering generally

The subject of this Memoir was a worthy representative of a class of men to whom we owe, in a large measure, the wealth and prosperity our country now enjoys.

The progressive improvements of the last hundred years, whether in our means of communication, in the spread of our knowledge, in the position of our science, in our arts and manufactures, in our provisions of war, or in our personal and domestic comforts and enjoyments, have been largely dependent on the work of the engineer. In some cases he has been almost the sole author of the progress made; in scarcely any would such progress have been possible, unaided by the mechanical design and constructive art which it is his province to supply.

The profession of engineering has, indeed, now taken such a high position in the economy of modern life, and its members are called on to exercise such important functions in the community, that the nature of their occupation cannot but be a matter of general interest; and the life and work of an eminent engineer may, in the present day, be deemed, •without presumption, as worthy of being put upon record as were the lives and works of heroes or statesmen in the olden time.

It will be an appropriate introduction to the Life of Sir William Fairbairn, to give some account generally of the profession to which he belonged.

The term engineer comes more directly from another old French word in the form of a verb—s'ingenier. The meaning of this was ' chercher duns son genie, dans son esprit, quelque moyen pour reussir.'1 All authorities, our own great lexicographer included, agree that this word is to be taken as the true origin; and thus we arrive at the interesting and certainly little known fact, that an engineer is, according to the strict derivation of the term, not necessarily a person who has to do with engines, but anyone who seeks in his mind, who sets his mental powers in action, in order to discover or devise some means of succeeding in a difficult task he may have to perform.

It would be impossible to give a nobler or more appropriate description than this, of the manner in which our greatest engineering works have been produced, or the nature of the qualifications by which the greatest men in the profession have acquired their renown.

In 1588 a curious work was published, in Italian and French, by a Capitano Agostino Hamelli, who styled himself ' Ingegniero del Christianissimo He di Fiancia e di Pollonia.' It is a description of various ingenious constructive devices for both military and civil use ; and here, therefore, we have an early identification of the term engineer with precisely the kind of work that modern engineers are engaged in.


The Italians and Spanish, in adopting the term, have adhered more closely to the Latin form of the original in their ingegnere and ingegnero. The Germans adopt the French word.

The use of the term in England can be traced back to the thirteenth century. In the wardrobe account of King Edward I., a.d. 1300, occur the following passages :—

To Master Reginald, engineer, for going by the King's order from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, to tlie Sheriff of Northumberland, to procure and ehuse timber for the making of machines for the castle of Berwick, for seventy-eight days' expenses in going and returning, and for hackneys for riding, &c., 21. 8s.  (Another article charges his pay at 6d. per diem.)

In 1344, it would appear that 321 artificers and engineers were borne on the books of the Ordnance in time of peace.

Coming down to Queen Elizabeth's time, we find the term used twice by Shakspeare. Writing about l(i02,lie makes Hamlet say :—

An engineer therefore was a person in military service, whose business it was not only to direct warlike engines or weapons (a duty transferred at a later period to the artillery officer), but to undertake the design and construction of fortifications, siege works, roads, bridges, buildings, machinery, and all other works for military service which required knowledge, experience, and skill, in the arts of construction.

Down to a recent period the title engineer was unknown in any application except its military one. It was not applied to the constructors of similar works in civil life. And yet the construction of such works generally has existed from time immemorial. One of the earliest fables of antiquity—the destruction of the Ilydra by Hercules—is supposed to have referred to what we should now call the engineering work of draining the low lands of Argos, and damming up the sources of the inundations. And when we come to the more trustworthy records of history, wo find that the most ancient civilised nations occupied themselves practically with works of an engineering character, and on a very large scale.

In Mesopotamia there must have been, thousands of years ago, men who possessed considerable mechanical knowledge and much constructive skill, and traces of their occupations still remain. The Phoenicians, too, constructed harbour and other engineering works with great ability.

The ancient works of Egypt are celebrated, not only for the colossal magnitude of the buildings, but also for the ingenious and useful character of the hydraulic arrangements. It is in Egypt that we fmd the invention of the arch, the first rudiments of which may be traced back, it is said, to the time of Amunoph the First, 15-10 B.C. The original canal across the Isthmus of Suez was made under an Egyptian dynasty.

The Greeks, independently of their skill in building generally, must, from the extent of their coasts, have been well occupied in hydraulic constructions; but it is to their successors, the Romans, we may turn for the most remarkable examples of ancient engineering.

The immense extent of roads constructed by this nation, their durability, and the skill shown in surmounting the obstacles of marshes, lakes, and mountains, have excited astonishment and admiration. Twenty-nine great military roads centred in Rome, some of which were carried to the extreme points of the vast empire; and the whole of the roads were estimated as measuring 52,964 Roman miles. Many of the more important of these were admirable specimens of construction, abounding in excellent detail. The bridges, built in great numbers, and many of great size, were remarkable for their solidity. Trajan's Bridge over the early engineers.

Danube, built about a.d. 120, was the most magnificent in Europe; it consisted of twenty arches, each 180 feet span.

In hydraulic constructions the Romans also excelled. The works for supplying water to cities were often of great magnitude, and laid out with much skill. For Rome alone many conduits were used, one of which, the Aqua Claudia, was nearly fifty miles long. The quantity of water brought into the city was very large, and in addition to the great and numerous public fountains, the houses had water laid on.

Aqueducts of Roman construction still exist in many parts of Europe; among these, the Pont du Gard, near Xismes, is one of the most celebrated. It is 560 feet long and 160 feet high, and is supposed to have been executed by Agrippa, who was governor of Nistnes in the time of Augustus, and was declared curator perpetuus ciquarum. The aqueduct of Segovia, in Spain, is 2,220 feet long, and was built by Trajan. That of Lisbon has thirty-five arches, and is 263 feet high.

Canal works were common in ancient Italy. The Etruscans had cut many for drainage purposes, and one in the Pontine Marshes was executed by the Romans 162 B.C. Pliny mentions several' useful and magnificent' works of the kind constructed by Trajan.

The drainage of Lake Albano, 400 b.c., and that of Lake Fucino, a.d. 52, were great works, showing high skill and enterprise.

The town drainage of Rome, by the Cloaca Maxima, was also an engineering achievement that deserves mention.

From the nature of these works we may be fully convinced that they were designed by men well acquainted theoretically with the principles of natural philosophy current in their era; and, as a matter of practice, how excellently they were done is testified by the manner in which they have stood the ravages of time. We may indeed predict that there are few engineering works of our day which will, at the end of thousands of years, make as favourable an appearance as those of the ancients dc now.

We have not much in formation as to who were the actual designers of such works; probably, however, the architect, who has in all ages been a well-defined practitioner, took on himself the responsibility of building constructions generally. Erunelleschi, who built the great dome of Florence, and Michael Angelo, who designed St. Peter's at Rome, acted as architects, but really did also the work of engineers.

There is a curious reminiscence of a very ancient office, somewhat of an engineering character, in the title of the Tope, of Rome, namely, 'Pontifex,' or the Bridge Builder. It applied to an order of priests said to have been founded by Nuina, the second king of Rome, and it was transferred to the Tone probably on the very foundation of his chair. What the origin of this title was has been a matter of dispute even among the Romans themselves ; but the general opinion is that it related to bridges in some way, and Plutarch expressly says that the Pontiffs were commissioned to keep the bridges in repair, as one of the most indispensable parts of their holy office.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, we still find occasional examples of fine constructive works, as, for example, the great aqueduct of Spoleto, which was built by Theodoric King of the Goths a.d. 741. It has ten large Gothic arches, each seventy feet span, and is 328 feet high above the valley it crosses. It remains to this day in good condition, and still supplies water to the town.

About the twelfth century attention became strongly directed, in France, to the improvement of the internal communications of the country, and an association was for med under the name of the ' Freres Pontiers ' (Brethren of the Bridge), with the object of building bridges wherever rivers were dangerous or difficult to ford. This society, really a society of civil engineers, extended its branches over all parts of Northern Europe, and executed great numbers of important works, some of which are still in existence, as, for example, the Old Bridge at Lyons, and the celebrated one over the Rhone lower down, at St. Esprit, which was nearly half a mile long. The first stone Loudon Bridge was also erected about the same date by the same body. The Ponte Yecchio at Florence, having three segmental arches of ninety-five feet span, was built in 1345, and the first stone bridge in Paris dates 1412. The Pialto at Venice, with a single arch ninety-seven feet span, was built by Michael Angelo in 1578.

The construction of works connected with water, or as they are termed hydraulic works, has always formed an important branch of engineering.

The establishment of the city of Venice, on artificial foundations, and the great embankments and canal communications of the Low Countries, all executed at early periods, showed great skill in such works; and we know that iii the ninth and tenth centuries canals and river works for facilitating inland navigation were in course of construction. Charlemagne, for example, commenced a canal uniting the Rhine with the Danube.

The Italian Republics in the twelfth century, when they revived the arts and sciences, took measures to regulate and open the navigation by rivers long neglected, and many important works of this kind were executed in Northern Italy, particularly on the course of the To and the Mincio.

About the fifteenth century much was done by irrigation canals in the neighbourhood of Milan, in which Leonardo da Vinci—eminent for his constructive as well as his artistic talent—took a considerable share. The important system of locks was invented by two brothers Domenico of Yiterbo, in 1481, and was introduced by Leonardo in the Milanese canals.

About the commencement of the seventeenth century the great rivers of the north of Italy appear to have relapsed into a bad state, and the consequences were felt in disastrous and extensive inundations. The inhabitants of the districts became alarmed, the attention of the government was roused, and the most learned scientific men of the day were consulted as to how the evils might be remedied. To this impulse we owe a series of valuable theoretical and experimental studies which have formed the basis of modern hydraulic science and practice, and the authors of which may be esteemed the fathers of hydraulic engineering. A great mass of Italian literature was devoted to the subject, but a concise summary of the most useful informaiton was put on record in a more accessible shape by the publication in France, in 1737 aiid 1753, of the four quarto volumes of Belidor's 'Architecture Hydraulique,' a magnificent work deservedly esteemed, and which may be considered the earliest work on modern engineering.

The knowledge thus acquired spread rapidly throughout Europe, and gave a great impulse to hydraulic operations. But now arose a want of competent men to execute them. The architects, who had formerly undertaken constructive works generally, found these new studies somewhat foreign to their own business, and were moreover already well occupied in their more legitimate employment. Hence a new class of practitioners became necessary, who should devote their attention to hydraulic constructions, with all their necessary mechanical arrangements; and with these soon became associated the erection of buildings of a massive and unartistic character. Thus the new class of men undertook to design not only river and hydraulic works, but roads, bridges, docks, harbours, mills and machinery, and so on.

Such a class required a few names; and this was easily found. It was noticed that the kind of work undertaken by these practitioners was exactly analogous to that allotted to the 'engineers' of the military service, and the new profession adopted the same title, prefixing, however, the word ' civil,' to indicate that they were civilians, and so to distinguish them from their military brethren.

Hence the origin of the present term 'civil engineer;' its true meaning being a person who devotes himself to occupations of the kind originally practised by military engineers, but who belongs to the civil and not to the military community.

It is unnecessary to follow the spread of civil engineering throughout Europe farther than to notice the formation in France, early in the last century, of two official government corps of engineers of civil status, the 'Ingenieurs des Fonts et Chaussees,' and the 'Ingenieurs des Mines. The members of these corps have been employed throughout the Empire in government or private civil engineering works, and have gained themselves high reputation, not only for their practical services, but for their scientific labours in the advancement of their profession.

The earliest English engineering works of importance were the great systems of drainage and reclamation carried out on the east coast. The embankments of Romney Marsh and of the River Thames are so ancient, that no authentic records exist as to their construction; but the great drainage of the fen districts in Lincolnshire was executed about the middle of the seventeenth century by Cornelius Vermuyden, a Dutchman, and his countrymen were employed on similar works in other districts.

The first great engineering work done by an Englishman was the construction, in 1609—10, of the New River, to supply London with water from the springs of Hertfordshire. Hugh, afterwards Sir Hugh Myddelton, to whom this noble work is due, was brought up as a goldsmith and merchant; and it is not easy to understand how he acquired the practical and scientific knowledge necessary to design and construct a work of this kind; for it does not appear that he had any technical help worth notice, and the Italian hydraulic investigations were not then begun. He never called himself ' engineer,' for that title had not yet been applied to civilians; but he has nevertheless been rightly styled the father of the English profession. After the completion of the New-River, he carried out another great and useful work in the embankment of Brauing Haven, in the Isle of Wight.

Bridge-building appears subsequently to this to have had some attention. In the middle of the seventeenth century we find the celebrated architect, Inigo Jones, occupied in this class of work; and in 1739 a Swiss engineer, Labelye, designed the second bridge over the Thames —Westminster Bridge—using therein new methods of foundation showing considerable ingenuity. Shortly afterwards a clever, self taught Welshman, named Edwards, acquired considerable fame in the same line.

It was, however, about the middle of the eighteenth century before engineering in England may have been said to begin in earnest, by the employment of James Brindley to construct a large system of canals in Lancashire. Brindley was by trade a wheelwright and millwright, and, having naturally a mechanical turn of mind, he had acquired great skill in millwork and mechanical construction generally. The Duke of Bridgewater, having obtained in 1759 an Act empowering him to make a canal to convey his coals from Worsley to Manchester, about ten miles, and having heard of Brindley's ingenuity, resolved to employ him. In a few years the canal was completed, and Brindley afterwards executed many more, in that district as well as in other parts of the country, altogether about 360 miles in length, and involving engineering works of considerable magnitude and variety. He died in 1772.

Brindley has been usually held in great honour as an engineer; but it must be recollected that his works appear of higher merit because of the extremely backward state of engineering knowledge and practice in this country at that time. Hydraulic constructions, including the formation of canals and all appertaining works, were really in an advanced state on the continent before Brindley's day, and there was probably little done by him that had not been anticipated there. But he was an uneducated man, and even if the hydraulic information published by the Italians and French had penetrated to this country (which is very doubtful), it could hardly have been intelligible to him. Hence, he deserves credit for having, by his own unaided and unlettered practical intelligence and skill, accomplished so much in the face of what were no doubt great difficulties.

Another eminent man, who lived about the same time, John Smeaton, was in a very different position; as, to practical talents not inferior to Brindley's, he added the advantages of a good education and considerable scientific knowledge. He was, like Brindley, occupied at first with mechanical pursuits. He was apprenticed to a mathematical instrument maker, and afterwards went into that business on his own account. But he was fond of science, and he madt several communications to the Royal Society, who, in 1753, elected him a Fellow, and in 1759 awarded him their gold medal. In 1756, the Eddystone lighthouse having been destroyed by fire, Smeaton was applied to, on the recommendation of the President of the Royal Society, to rebuild it. He had just before made a careful study of the great engineering works of Holland and Belgium, during a tour in those countries, and he felt confidence in undertaking the task. The new lighthouse was completed in 1759, and its construction, ably described by himself, has commanded universal admiration.

Smeaton was afterwards engaged, down to his death in 1792, in many other engineering works—river and canal navigations, drainage and reclamation of lands, harbours, roads, bridges, water supplies, pumping-engines, and machinery. Ills reports, which have been collected and published, are admirable models of what such documents should be. He did not execute any works of the gigantic character which has more lately so impressed the popular mind; but considering his accurate and extensive scientific knowledge, his good education and position in society, his great practical skill and experience, his literary ability, his logical and sound judgment, and the zealous and conscientious care and attention he bestowed on whatever he undertook, he is admitted by all competent judges to hold the very highest rank as an engineer.

It is probable, too, that he was the first civil practitioner, at least in England, who formally adopted that title, and used the compound term ' civil engineer.' A report he made dated July 11, 1761, on a canal in Staffordshire is entitled, 'Report by John Smeaton, Engineer, concerning the Practicability &c. of a navigable Canal .... as projected by Mr. James Brindley, Engineer.' He awards the same title to his coadjutor, but there is no evidence that Brindley himself had previously used the term. The prefix 1 civil' was sometimes added by Smeaton on state occasions, but he usually styled himself simply 'engineer.'

The profession being thus fairly launched and named, and an impulse given to the demands upon it by the improvements in the communications and trade of the country, many practitioners followed, among whom are several honoured names.

James Watt was a contemporary of Smeaton, but his part in engineering will be treated of more fully in the next chapter.

Robert Mylne, another contemporary, who, after the manner of the ancients, combined the professions of architect and civil engineer, built the third bridge over the Thames, at Blackfriars, in 1770.

John Rennie (1761-1821) designed Waterloo Bridge, Southwark iron Bridge, and new London Bridge, as well as the London Docks, the Plymouth Breakwater, and many other large and important engineering works of various kinds.

Thomas Telford is celebrated for the construction of the beautiful Menai Suspension Bridge, the great Holyhead and Highland Roads, the Ellesmere and Caledonian Canals, and many other works of importance. He died in 1834, which brings us to the time of the Stephensons and Brunels, and the commencement of the era of railways, since which the progress of engineering has been so well known that it is unnecessary here to follow further the general history of the profession.

It may be desirable now to define with some precision what engineering means, and what kind of occupations are comprised in the profession or employment of a civil engineer.

The exact definition of engineering has always been a matter of some difficulty.

The meaning already drawn from the original derivation of the word, that an engineer is one 'qui cherche dans son genie quelque moyen pour reussir,' though applicable enough, is too comprehensive for a strict definition, as it would apply to many occupations which are not engineering.

Similarly, another definition which has been offered, namely, that engineering is 'the application of scientific principles to the art of construction,' is too large. Few things involve more science in their design than a chronometer or a microscope ; yet the makers of these are not called engineers.

A very old Engineering Society, founded by Smeaton, has adopted two mottoes. One is Greek—

tsyy-q Kpj.Tuvfj.iv mr <f>Łait vuc&fuBn.

We conquer by Art the difficulties offered by Nature.

which is certainly highly characteristic of the operations of the engineer. The other is Latin—

Omnia in numero, pondere, et mensura.


which gives the idea, also correct as far as it goes, that one of the principal functions of the engineer is the practical application of the science of quantity in the estimation of forces, resistances, velocities, and magnitudes.

The more modern Institution of Civil Engineers define their profession as:

The art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man.

which would seem at first sight to apply more especially to the mechanical branch, but which is doubtless intended to comprise works of construction generally, in which the great powers of nature come into play.

Civil engineering may now be understood legitimately to comprise the art of constructing any large works, for civil purposes, in the design of which the mechanical sciences are applied.

Thus the practitioners in this art may have to do with many classes of works ; for example :—

1. "Works for facilitating and improving internal communication; as roads, railways, inland navigation by canals and rivers, bridges, and the electric telegraph.

2. Works connected with the seacoast, and for facilitating communication between the sea and the land; such as harbours, docks, piers, breakwaters, sea walls, lighthouses, &c. &c.

3. Works for the reclamation, irrigation, or drainage of land; the improvement of rivers as arterial drains; the prevention or regulation of floods &c.

4. Municipal works; such as the drainage, the water supply, the lighting, and the street arrangements of towns.

5. Large and massive buildings generally (excluding their artistic features, which belong to the architect,) and all scientific and mechanical arrangements belonging thereto.

6. The operations of Mining, so far as they involve the application of mechanical science.

7. The design and construction of the mechanical prime movers; as steam-engines, water-wheels and other hydraulic motors, windmills, and other sources of power.

8. The design and construction of machinery and mechanical appliances of all kinds, excluding the more minute specialities, such as clock and watchwork &c.

9. The design and manufacture generally of all large, and important structures in iron.

This is a comprehensive catalogue of duties; and if we consider the quantity of work that has been done under these various heads, during the last century, and contemplate the effect that this work has had on trade, on commerce, on finance, on government, on every branch of industry, and indeed on every possible aspect of human interests, we cannot hesitate to admit that the profession of engineering has become truly a great power.

It would be interesting to know the amount of money which has been laid out during the last century in works constructed by engineers; but this it is not possible to ascertain. In Railways alone, the expenditure in Great Britain has been 620,000,000l'. And if to this we could add the outlay on municipal, coast, harbour, dock, river, canal, road, mining, and telegraph works, as well as the enormous sums invested in steam vessels, ironworks, manufactories, mills, engines, and machinery in endless variety, we should obtain an almost fabulous amount ex pended, in one small country alone, under the direction of this one profession. So far as the importance of a class of men can be estimated by the money value of the work they have to do, there has been no parallel with the engineering profession since the foundation of the world.

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