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Lessons from history

Last week NCE technical editor Dave Parker presented a paper to a International Association for Bridge & Structural Engineering colloqium in Cambridge. This is his report on two days of discussions.

Few UK civil engineering students study the history of their profession in the way that lawyers or architects do. Even where courses are available, questions on engineering history are unlikely to appear in exam papers. Nor, until recently at least, was a specialisation in engineering history likely to impress prospective employers of new graduates.

All that is likely to change. The 25 eminent civil and structural engineers (and one engineering journalist) who assembled at St John's College for the International Association for Bridge & Structural Engineering Henderson colloquium last week included seven university professors, a handful of PhD's and senior partners and some rising stars of the profession. They all agreed on one basic truth: that knowledge and appreciation of engineering history is becoming an essential part of an engineer's professional competence.

Successive speakers pointed out that the role of the civil and structural engineer is changing. Maintaining existing infrastructure, most of it constructed during the last 100 years, is likely to be the profession's main task in the future. Strengthening, widening, upgrading and remodelling older structures can only be done effectively if the engineers responsible have an adequate understanding of how they were originally designed and built. And even when new structures are being designed and built, a knowledge of history can bypass the need to 're-invent the wheel' and steer engineers clear of repeating the mistakes of their predecessors.

Recently, the Joint Board of Moderators guidelines for engineering courses appeared to highlight the need for a significant historical content. 'A thorough knowledge of historical precedent can inform both intuition and conscious choice,' they said, among other recommendations. But, as the colloquium heard, there are practical problems in putting together a course which will really meet the needs of a practicing engineer.

Available historical texts tend to concentrate on pre-20th century personalities or on successful innovation - the introduction of new materials and techniques - or the design of landmark buildings like the Sydney Opera House. But what those who will be responsible for the civil engineering heritage need to know is more practical and less dramatic. Structures they encounter are likely to represent what was current practice at the time, in terms of design and construction. An understanding of the properties of wrought iron arches or lift slab construction has to be balanced with knowledge of the structural analysis methods used and the accuracy of slide rules and log tables.

Unfortunately, as NCE journalists will confirm, even very recent major projects are badly recorded. Unless major consultants and contractors, possibly working with academia, the professional institutions and NCE make a positive effort to document the design, planning and execution of all types of civil engineering work, there will be a real shortage of history for future generations to learn from. This was the main message of the colloquium.

Everyone involved in the construction industry is at risk from the 'collective amnesia' that will inevitably result from ignoring this responsibility. We will be condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past - and our status will continue to decline.

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