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Changing of the guard


Working conditions for civil engineers were very different half a century ago. James Sutherland looks back on his early career.

When I joined Sir William Halcrow & Partners in 1946 the firm was quite small - by today's standards anyway - with five partners and an engineering staff, as I remember, of about 25. This was interestingly mixed in age and qualification, ranging from junior draughtsmen to the future pioneer of the finite element method, Professor Olgierd Zienkiewicz.

Some had been working through the 1930s, while others, inexperienced in design but matured by up to five years in the services, were starting on level terms with the youngest graduate.

Salaries of the time must look absurdly low today. As a raw graduate I was offered £4 a week. When I said that the Navy had been paying me, with allowances, almost twice as much the administrative partner replied 'big business is not a charitable institution'.

At the time it did not seem a very big business but I was not to know that today the firm would be employing well over 3,000.

Later I found that my £4 was about normal but one colleague, with more experience who had joined the firm a little earlier, was on £2.50. We all pressed him to rebel but I do not think he ever did.

One better-off graduate had the distinction of having his salary cheque returned to him by the scandalised administrative partner who said it had been found in the waste paper basket.

Cost indexes suggest multiplying by 20-25 for today's equivalents. Thus my £4 per week becomes roughly £4,000 to £5,000/year.

Graduates it seems do better today!

Apart from the partners we were all in two rooms. I was in the larger one where we were grouped around the key man for communications, who typed and despatched the letters using a very noisy mechanical typewriter.

The engineers were equipped with standard wooden drawing boards and tee squares.

Rough drawings were made on tracing paper but the majority were in ink on linen with copies made by an agency, which called to collect and deliver.

We each had our drawing instruments, log tables and slide rules together with the odd textbook. There were no pocket calculators, in fact nothing electrical in the office except the lighting and the telephone. The computer was as far away as Mars.

We were working on what were then considered essential projects, in our case hydroelectricity and steam power stations with some tunnelling. There was virtually no general building work at the time and the road programme had not started. All materials were in short-supply, steel in particular, which sometimes led to panic re-detailing particularly with reinforcement.

Steelwork was virtually all riveted and concrete, apart from precast sheds, cast insitu.

Timber was hardly seen as structural and the word plastic still implied Bakelite radio sets and discoloured cups and saucers.

Pipelines and drainage runs were in steel, cast iron, salt-glazed ware or concrete, as most appropriate, and electrical insulation was in rubber. The dominance of plastics in these fields was yet to come. GRP and carbon fibre were even farther in the future.

For guidance we relied on books. For instance there was Pippard and Baker for analysis and Reynolds's Reinforced concrete designers' handbook, which solved most concrete problems. The BSI codes had not yet arrived although there was BS449 for steelwork, a messenger for them from the 1930s. Graphical analysis was still in vogue as it had been 100 years earlier.

Prestressed concrete, composite construction and soil mechanics were subjects for discussion rather than immediate action but were soon to come, with limit state thinking and metrication to follow.

It is notable how little thought was given to the environment in the 1940s and 50s. At the time I had few qualms about the multiple steel pipelines snaking down through the heather to a Scottish hydroelectric station and about my part in designing hulking concrete anchor blocks to restrain them. Interestingly, on these projects there was an architect to make the buildings seemly, but the pipelines were just engineering and did not matter!

Another big difference between then and now was in our attitude to safety. There were no hard hats then and no heavy boots. Protective gloves would have been thought 'soft' even for the most abrasive work. We just wore gumboots and donkey jackets to keep out the wet.

Also I remember few if any barriers around openings or on scaffolding. Perhaps we were more careful than today. We had to be. Walking under steelwork being erected, it only needed one large red hot rivet to drop and sizzle in the wet a couple of paces away to make one look up as well as ahead.

Looking back, it is means of communication, which stand out as one of the greatest differences between 50 years ago and today.

This became particularly noticeable when, after two years, I managed to get transferred to the site office of what was then a major power station.

With no fax, no e-mail and no photocopiers at either end and no means of getting a dyeline print within miles of the site, contact with head office depended on the post and telephone, neither then wholly reliable. For last minute changes or hitches we devised complex procedures for communicating visual information verbally by telephone.

At one point the contractor invested in a primitive sun-operated copier but it was hopeless even when the sun did come out.

Likewise all the surveying equipment we used it was, by modern standards, sound but suitable for a museum.

Changes came slowly at first but the pace increased after about 1955. Today we know much more than in 1946. We can do things now which would have been impossible then, but it is hard not to wonder whether as engineers we are we are not moving too far into a paper or 'virtual' world and forgetting that mud, for instance, has not changed in the last 50 years.

James Sutherland is consultant to Babtie Group:

Harris & Sutherland

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