Smeaton and Breadth of Knowledge

by Don Friedman on August 10, 2017


The ASCE recently put up a nice mini-biography of John Smeaton on their website. It’s all good to call him the father of civil engineering, but what does that actually mean? Civil engineering was so named to distinguish it from military engineering (itself originally a combination of ballistics and fort design) and was originally a reflection of the engineering concerns of the eighteenth century: the design of canals, dams, roads, drainage, water supply, bridges, and transportation-related structures like lighthouses, docks, and bridges. There was little separation between design and construction, so civil engineers inevitably got involved with the mechanics of building and worked on hoists, cranes, and steam engines. Smeaton’s career, and especially his iconic design for the Eddystone Lighthouse, show an amazing breadth of interest and ability.

Structural engineering began as a subgroup of civil engineering and remains so to this day. My undergraduate degree is in civil engineering, and so are those of most of the structural engineers I know. In the Civ E program at Rensselaer, I had the option of studying structures, transportation, or environmental engineering. Mechanical, chemical, and electrical engineering were spun off as they developed (from scratch in the latter two cases) during the second half of the nineteenth century.

On a lot of projects, we have a very narrow role. We’ll design some steel alterations but are not involved with the construction (handled by a contractor), field inspection (handled by a third-party special inspection firm), or fire-proofing (handled by a performance specification). This is the way that our profession has developed in the three hundred plus years since Smeaton was active and it’s pointless to gripe about “the modern world.”

Some projects, we get to spread a bit. We get involved with construction logistics through our design, or we are working on a building where it’s not possible to separate structure from architecture, or we have to combine historical research, site observation, and non-destructive testing to understand what’s really going on. Those projects, where we get out of the confines of modern specialties aren’t just more fun, they typically are better engineering, too.

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