For the past four years I have been involved in the compilation of the second volume of the Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers. This project, conceived by the late Professor Sir Alec Skempton, is currently focused on the period 1830? 90, generally regarded as the golden period of British civil engineering.
The great joy of the research has been the examination of some of the unsung heroes of British engineering, rather than the more well-known gures of Brunel, Locke and Stephenson.
In this regard the works of British engineers overseas have been most revealing. Best known are the railway networks provided not just in the British Empire but also across Europe and Latin America.
India is also well known for its irrigation works. One specific area that has fascinated me of late is dam design.
Victorian Britain is associated with the great earth embankment dams of Bateman and Hawksley. A fine example of this type was built in India by Alexander Binnie at Nagpur.
In contrast, the first major masonry dam in Britain, that at Vyrnwy, was not completed until 1892. The history of masonry arch dam design is normally associated with French engineers. However, there are plenty of ancient examples of masonry dams, for instance in Spain.
It is not until Simon Stevin in 1586 and then BF Belidor in 1750 that the stability of dams was discussed in a rational sense.
In 1853 the French engineer Augustin de Sazilly proposed a method of gravity dam design, based on treating it as a series of slices, which can be treated as a cantilever. He then developed a stepped prole.
In 1858 work began on the Furens Dam near SaintEtienne. The engineers Graeff and Delocre used de Sazilly's methods to design the dam, generally regarded as the first whose profile was designed by rational methods. It was completed in 1866.
Many people will be aware that William Rankine wrote a paper, published in The Engineer in January 1872, in which he basically supported the French engineers' methods, but realised that it was important to determine the maximum compression stress regardless of direction. The paper also took account of tensile stresses for the first time.
It is often forgotten, however, that Rankine did this work in response to an inquiry about the proposed Periyar irrigation scheme in Madras, not completed until 1898.
In fact, engineers in India had already seized on the ideas of the French engineers. The first major masonry dam in India was the Meer Alum dam completed in 1806 at Hyderabad. It was the first buttress dam of the multiple-arch type, designed by Lieutenant Samuel Ranott.
Continuing this innovative precedent is the work of Colonel Fife, who after a period on irrigation work in the Sind became chief engineer in Bombay. He translated Graeff and Delocre's work and designed masonry dams at Pune and elsewhere.
Making the French ideas available in English helped disseminate them and another of the Bombay engineers, George Gordon, went to Australia where he designed a masonry arch dam at Lower Stony Creek.
What is remarkable is that in the days before the internet - or indeed air mail - Fife learnt so quickly of developments in France and was able to apply them so quickly.
At a time when dam engineers in Britain were still employing empirical methods in their work, British engineers abroad were using the most advanced techniques.