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Can we be heroes?

Everyone needs heroes. Outstanding men and women provide inspiration and kindle enthusiasm. Civil engineering is no different to any other profession in its need for heroic figures, superstars whose achievements cast lustre on humbler practitioners. But where are they? Where are the high profile civil and structural engineers whose names are known outside our own small world, whose opinions are sought by the wider media, whose fame enhances the status of the profession in the public eye?

Once we had them. The Brunels and Smeatons were household names in previous centuries, paid superstar salaries equivalent to £300,000 a year or more. This century, particularly the last 50 years, has thrown up virtually none. Those topping our poll of great 20th century civil engineers (see News), the Williams, Freemans, Skemptons and Arups et al, whatever their fame inside civil engineering, have made little impact outside it. Even those responsible for such heroic structures as the Humber Bridge, Millennium Dome or the Second Severn Crossing received little in the way of public accolade.

Perhaps this is a reflection of the changing nature of the profession. Major projects are designed and built by large teams of trained engineers, not by one pioneering genius. Team leaders need management, business and promotional skills as much as, perhaps even more than, pure engineering expertise. And, with a few notable exceptions, the profession has long harboured a subconscious horror of self-promotion. Would-be superstars attract distaste rather than admiration.

Contrast this with the architects. Sir Norman, Sir Richard and the rest have no reservations about self-publicity. They really are household names and the attention, good and bad, they attract for architecture in the wider media is seen as beneficial to the whole profession.

It is worth noting that the highest profile structural engineer of modern times is almost certainly Santiago Calatrava - who is also an architect. There is a lesson there for civil engineers.

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