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America's history goes digital - Mike Chrimes Head ofKnowledgeTransfer, ICE

I recently visited the United States to receive the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) History and Heritage Award, an honour that I believe reflects as much on my library colleagues as myself. It provided an opportunity to visit colleagues in Washington and discuss 'knowledge transfer' and 'heritage' issues.

The Smithsonian Institution Libraries are engaged in an ambitious digitisation programme, which has a large amount of trade literature scanned and now freely available on their websites.

This is particularly strong in scientific instruments, seed catalogues, and sewing machines. They are also involved in a major international programme with the Natural History Museum, London and Kew Gardens to create a Biodiversity Heritage Library. This has been successful in attracting funding to digitise old literature as it provides an invaluable source of information on changes in the world's biology.

It is a shame no benefactor has been found for the world's civil engineering literature.

I also met with Richard O'Connor, acting director, and Larry Lee at the Historic American Engineering Record. HAER's records are digitised on a quarterly basis by the Library of Congress . Their headquarters is close to the former Greyhound bus terminal in Washington DC, a fine example of adaptive reuse with its art deco architecture.

At the Smithsonian I was able to see some of their rare books and manuscripts. A fascinating letter from civil engineer James Watt of 20 July 1795, at a time when he and fellow engineer Matthew Boulton were trying to combat infringements of their steam engine patents by Richard Trevithick, is uncompromising in its language.

Of Trevithick – now known as inventor of the locomotive – Watt says he "has now made himself participo criminis", while of his
father, the mining engineer says: "I deny toto animo that Trevithick senior is a gentleman either by birth, education, manners or
fortune, but to my certain experience he isa most obstinate and malicious rascal."

On a friendlier note is the letter sent by Robert Stephenson to his father George from Columbia on 17 August 1826. It introduces an early engineer, and ICE member, J G Bodmer to his father.

An eighteenth century account of the Bassano bridge in Italy (1749–1750) by Bartolomeo Ferracino details the costs, suggesting he was paid around 5,400 lira on a 50,000 lire bridge – a similar rate to a UK engineer of the time.

I was also able to visit Harpers Ferry, best known as the site of abolitionist John Brown's abortive attack on the US Government
Arsenal, a prelude to the American Civil War.

In civil engineering history, its importance lies as a crossroads in the early US canal and railway network. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and Baltimore and Ohio railroad both passed through here. The canal, intended to link the Ohio to the Atlantic via Washington DC, was built between 1828 and 1850 but work was hampered by lack of funds.

At Harpers Ferry access to land along the Potomac Valley was the subject of a four year dispute with the railway, settled in 1832.

The railway, under construction at the same time, with a link from Baltimore to Washington, followed the Potomac to Harpers Ferry where a number of alignments have been followed over the centuries.

Today, there are foundation piers of a number of demolished bridges, as well as the existing truss structures. The railway station has been beautifully restored and serves a handful of commuter trains to Washington, DC. The bulk of rail traffic is coal freight. The canal is now a long-distance cycle and walkway.

The Smithsonian Institution Libraries
Biodiversity Heritage Library
Library of Congress

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