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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
which is certainly highly characteristic of the
operations of the engineer. The other is Latin—
Omnia in numero, pondere, et mensura.
WHAT ENGINEERING COMPRISES.
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.