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Civils service

Engineering role

Technological advance this century has revolutionised the way civil engineers work and do business, says Dr Martin Barnes.

How have civil engineering and the ICE changed in the last century and how will they change in the next? Some things have changed a lot and, surprisingly, some have changed very little.

In his presidential address delivered on 6 November 1900, James Mansergh's main theme was the rightness of the then policy for public authorities to take over private water undertakings. His arguments for publicisation were very like the recently persuasive arguments for privatisation.

The next year, new president Charles Hawkesley surveyed the century just ended. 'It is extremely difficult to realise that so many of the appliances that now surround us and which we regard as part of everyday life were, one hundred years ago, entirely unknown and, for the most part, not even thought of.' And this man was unaware of aeroplanes, television, computers and the Internet - which would come later. His audience was entirely male, as was his profession.

Civil engineering itself was very different 100 years ago. Most civil engineers were consulting engineers with the rest working for public authorities. Hardly any worked for contractors as they did no engineering. The usual route to qualification was by pupillage supplemented by spare time classes. Less than one third of civil engineers had a degree.

The materials in which engineers designed and built were still masonry, brickwork and, except for the very large bridges, unframed steelwork. Concrete was yet to come.

The major projects of the time were transport schemes such as the Great Central Railway from Nottingham to London and the Manchester Ship Canal and the great, distant water supply schemes for Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham. Road schemes were unknown, as little road traffic went beyond the nearest railway station.

Most design work was done in the new buildings which lined Victoria Street, Westminster. Much of the work was for overseas - India, South Africa and the Far East. Management was unsophisticated and unrecognised as a part of civil engineering skill.

Cost and time targets were undemanding as few clients had a profit motive or a target for return on investment. Lowest tender was the almost universal way of choosing contractors. Conditions of contract were the same as they had been throughout most of the previous century - and as they would remain throughout most of the next. Clients and contractors were at the mercy of the decisions made by 'the Engineer' who often resented advice or suggestions from either quarter. Clients used the same consultants for decades without ever asking them to justify their retention. Fees were never discussed. It was not the behaviour of a gentleman to query or complain.

One hundred years ago, subcontracting was almost unknown, as civil engineering construction required only a large force of unskilled men and a good team of traditional tradesmen - mainly masons and bricklayers and, for the temporary works, timbermen. Steelfixers and formwork carpenters were yet to come.

Horses in their hundreds were the main source of power on site. Portable coal fired steam engines drove the major plant, such as hoists, pumps and cranes. Small steam locomotives on lightweight movable railways were the motive power for larger earth moving tasks.

The lack of communications sustained some good practices which we have since lost. When the drawings for the big new dock at Durban were done in Victoria Street - and it took several weeks to get them to the site - they had to be right first time and complete first time.

It would never occur to the resident engineer to query a detail or ask for more drawings - no message from him or its reply travelled faster than the steamship. Nothing could be left pending the next visit of the partner from head office - he would not be coming until the formal opening ceremony.

Post around the UK was fast and frequent but also encouraged thoroughness and accuracy. With no telephones or photocopiers, letters were carefully planned and short. Drawings were seldom changed. All calculations were done laboriously by hand - and what calculations!

Modern engineers who use spreadsheets, calculators and metric units will never know what it was like to multiply 16 tons, three quarters, two hundredweights and 11 pounds of steel by 12 pounds, 12 shillings and threepence halfpenny per ton - on paper and by hand - and sometimes to go on doing the same sort of calculations day after day.

So when did all this change? For civil engineering, the 20th century divides into two unequal phases - the first 60 years and the last 40.

In the first 60 years there were three important technical changes but hardly any change in the way the profession was organised and did its work. The technical changes were the widespread introduction of electricity, the internal combustion engine and concrete.

But by 1960 civil engineers worked in the same way as they had for decades and civil engineering was organised in the same way. Victoria Street still dominated. The relationships between the engineer and his clients and between him and the contractors were still the same too.

We now had better communications. But we still used imperial units and old money and management was still nothing to do with civil engineering. A higher proportion of civil engineers now worked for contractors and the majority of new entrants now had a degree. Not until 1957 was the first female - Mary Ferguson - elected to the highest grade of membership of the ICE - the year I joined the ICE as a student member.

In the last 40 years we have seen a huge change in how civil engineers work and how civil engineering is organised.

Victoria Street has been dispersed and the names and ownerships of nearly all the consulting engineers have changed. The great public utilities have all become private again. Computers dominate design and administration. The Internet dominates communications.

A thought or a document can be transmitted anywhere in the world in no time at all and at no significant cost. In the same period, the science of project management has developed and is now widely applied. Traditional boundaries between professional and commercial roles have been removed so that, for example, contractors now commission design and clients look to contractors to finance projects.

We are building railways again, new roads being regarded as damaging instead of a good thing. There are more women in civil engineering than ever before, although still not very many. We have new ways of contracting for civil engineering work and are working hard to destroy the culture of contention which we have tolerated for the last 100 years. We now know that we are custodians of a fragile environment and, for the first time, take that seriously as part of the job.

What does this suggest for the next century? As Hawkesley said in 1901, none of the changes in the 19th century could have been predicted and, as we have seen, neither could those of the 20th.

We can only speculate on what might happen to civil engineering in the 21st century. As publicisation was all the rage towards the end of the 19th century and privatisation towards the end of the 20th, and if there is some sort of a cycle, it seems at least probable that we will revert to publicisation towards the end of the 21st.

As we have had no pervasive change in the materials which we use for a very long time, it seems reasonable that we are due for one within the next half century. Many civil engineering structures in 2050 could well be built of a yet unknown material.

The current revolution in the management and organisation of civil engineering work has not yet run its course. It seems likely that both will look very different by the middle of the 21st century. If they also follow a cycle, there may then be another long period of stagnation.

It is difficult to see how communications could go on getting easier and faster. What is quite likely is that transporting of people will become unnecessary. There will be no need to go to work in order to interact with other people and no need to go beyond the front room to experience the Victoria Falls, Opera at the Met or even a picnic on a grassy bank. I end with two fairly safe predictions for the year 2057.

First, I shall not be present at the celebrations of the centenary of my joining the ICE - although, by then, I may be able to send an e-mail message to revellers from the hereafter. Second, that the proportion of women members will then still not exceed 50%.

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