A co-author of the trilogy The Civil Engineers, The Contractors and The Consulting Engineers, Mike Chrimes, Retired ICE Director of Engineering Policy and Innovation, gives you an insight into what you can learn from the books and how the civil engineering industry has developed and changed over the last few centuries.
Today most people participate in a global economy, often employed directly or indirectly by global enterprises which have greater financial resources than many nation states. Their standards of living and way of life are underpinned by an engineered infrastructure which has developed almost exponentially over 300 years. In that period people have come to expect levels of professionalism and educational expertise from a group of people who barely existed 300 years ago - ‘The Engineers’. In a series of three books Hugh Ferguson and I have combined our knowledge of engineering history and present day engineering practice to describe how the twenty first century world has been shaped by British engineering firms.
The first volume in the series, The Civil Engineers, describes the origins of the civil engineering profession in the early days of the industrial revolution, and how the complementary needs of early engineers and clients for an informed engineering profession led to the establishment of the world’s first engineering society ‘The Smeatonians’ in 1771, soon followed by the world’s first professional engineering body, the Institution of Civil Engineers (1818), which proved a model for similar societies all over the world. Over the next two centuries the body developed its learned society activities - meetings, publications, and websites, in parallel with ever higher standards of qualification for its members, and advised governments on infrastructure needs, product and safety standards, and encouraged similar developments in new disciplines and other countries.
The second volume, The Contractors, describes how the construction process required to deliver larger and larger projects enabled the emergence of larger and larger enterprises capable of building entire railway lines and enormous power stations. Such businesses called for a level of financial acumen and engineering knowledge to survive the challenge of economic cycles, and the ambition and confidence to operate all over the world. Recent industry developments have seen retrenchment from global markets and participation in joint ventures in framework contracts with consultants and venture capitalists.
This year’s volume, The Consulting Engineers, complements the two earlier volumes, describing how the demand for consulting engineering services, independent of manufacturers and contractors, grew in the eighteenth century with the demand for better transport links - roads and canals, and new power sources for factories. In the early nineteenth century the advent of the railways drove the international demand for British consulting engineers, soon followed by experts in the utilities - gas, water and latterly electricity supply, and public health engineering, as well as mining experts and later oil and process engineers. Concepts of the independent consulting engineer have varied over time, and the organisation of firms was transformed in the late twentieth century as small family based firms have developed into limited companies and now global enterprises.
In all three volumes the pace of change fuelled by the impact of IT is evident. The next chapter is uncertain, but the telling contribution of engineers to the world we live in now suggests, in some form, consultants, contractors and professional institutions will all be necessary to regulate practitioners if we are to deliver zero carbon by 2050 or before.
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