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The way we were


THE INSTITUTION'S complacency towards education and training last century may have contributed to the 'relatively poor performance' of the British engineering industry since its mid-Victorian high point, ICE head librarian Mike Chrimes said last week.

In a presentation on the history of the ICE at a meeting of the ALGS, Chrimes described how the Institution's complacency sprang from the prestige and wealth it had achieved from the 19th Century railway age.

The Institution believed exams were unnecessary and that membership should be enough to demonstrate ability.

It was not until 1887 that the decision was taken to introduce professional examinations. In the meantime, Chrimes said, other countries' engineers had been put in a much stronger position. However, he pointed out that since 1914 with the introduction of training under agreement, the institution's entrance qualifications have been the envy of the world.

Chrimes said it was possible the Institution's failure to take the initiative with new engineering advances led to the fragmentation of the profession. For example, when the ICE published a neutral report on reinforced concrete in 1910, it brought about the formation of the Concrete Institute (later the Institution of Structural Engineers) which wanted a more positive approach to concrete.

Chrimes said the ICE began from meetings in the 18th century coffee houses of London. His talk progressed through the ages to the modern day introductions of the 'much criticised for its quasi-independent editorial line' New Civil Engineer and ICENET.

According to Chrimes, civil engineers were first brought together in 1760s London. Because of an increase in engineering work, such as canal building, they came to attend Parliament to oversee Acts being passed to grant permission for their projects to be built. In 1760, John Smeaton and some of his colleagues became the first to refer to themselves as civil engineers. Their informal gatherings became the Smeatonian Society which was founded in 1771.

The Smeatonians set up a library of sorts and began publishing the Smeatonian reports. On 2 January 1818, the Institution was formally founded.

In 1820, Thomas Telford became president and, among his accomplishments, obtained the Royal Charter. This gave the Institution a status that was unchallenged for nearly 100 years.

Chrimes said that in 1833, the Institution occupied its first building at 1 Cannon Row. By the 1840s, it was coming into its own. The railway construction boom brought its members recognition in society and wealth. The ICE was becoming less dependent on the prestige of its presidents because biennial and later annual presidencies were introduced to prevent presidents stifling the institution with one point of view.

By the mid-1860s a library catalogue had been produced, the administration had been tightened up and the institution was becoming 'the world's premier engineering organisation'.

By the end of the 19th century, 90% of civil engineers were members of the ICE. In 1910, the ICE moved from its 70-year home at 25 Great George Street to its present site.

Chrimes said he believed there was little change in the attitudes of the ICE from the Edwardian period until New Civil Engineer was launched in 1972. Since then, he said the ICE has changed a lot - and 'the rapid development of services on the Internet is an indication that the pace of change is not slacking'.

Georgina Whittaker

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