In the late eighteenth century a diverse collection of technically proficient men emerged as leading figures of the early industrial age. French architects and state engineers, German mechanics, Dutch hydraulic engineers, Scottish inventors, and British agronomists all contributed to the emerging profession of engineering in the nineteenth century. Collectively, these technically inclined men came to shape the emerging industrial face of every nation in Europe. Engineers based their claim to expertise on elite training acquired through apprenticeships or mentors in the late eighteenth century and from elite engineering schools in the nineteenth century. They sought to apply scientific principles and technical analysis to promote innovative designs for civil and mechanical engineering problems. Civil engineers built elaborate road, canal, and rail networks, while mechanical and industrial engineers helped create the machinery that powered production in mines, textile mills, and factories. Over time engineers increasingly set themselves apart as technical experts, as political advisors, and as managers of natural resources such as water and rivers, as well as of the built environment they constructed. Engineering priorities began with an intense focus on water usage, agriculture, and canals in the early nineteenth century and gradually expanded to include roads, railways, factories, and urban infrastructure.
The emergence of the engineering profession was not without struggle and owed much to eighteenth-century patronage and royal tradition. As royal projects became increasingly ambitious, governments increasingly favored designers who could claim technical training, skill, and accomplishments over those with architectural training that emphasized aesthetic and classical concerns. French projects such as the ambitious Canal du Midi across southern France demanded technical skill that favored engineers rather than architects. This tension between elegance and function played out differently in England, where a strong tradition of classical liberalism led parliamentary commissions to award projects to individuals rather than state-organized corps of engineers. Consequently, a wider variety of architects, engineers, and self-taught experts emerged in England, where prominent architects such as Christopher Wren (1632–1723) had earlier established a strong tradition of individual design in England. Consequently, some of the most notable triumphs of nineteenth-century British civil and industrial engineering were the product of private enterprise and rugged independent thinkers and tinkerers.
By contrast, France, Belgium, and Spain developed strong traditions of state planning by prestigious corps of state-trained civil engineers. In France by the time of the French Revolution the civil engineers of the Royal Corps des Ponts et Chaussées (Bridges and Roads) had wrested control of state projects from competing architects of the beaux arts tradition. State-sponsored engineering corps were populated by graduates of the elite École Polytechnique, which prepared students for both civil and military engineering careers.
In the opening decades of the nineteenth century large-scale civil engineering projects focused on agricultural improvements and water usage. Dutch and English engineers continued eighteenth-century trends toward scientific farming, crop rotation, and enclosure by bringing irrigation, land drainage, pumps, and dikes to bear on their regions' age-old preoccupations with land recovery and productive farming. Nineteenth-century agricultural engineers deployed a remarkable array of new farming machinery, including improved versions of Jethro Tull's (1674–1741) seed drill and Andrew Meikle's (1719–1811) threshing machine as well as steam-powered tractors. British equipment designed for producing irrigation and drainage tiles quickly found its way to the Continent, where French engineers under Napoleon III (r. 1852–1871) sought to implement a nationwide campaign to drain swamps and increase the amount of land under cultivation.
Canals constituted a second eighteenth-century initiative that flourished through the 1820s and 1830s as coal, ore, and textile entrepreneurs demanded ready access to waterpower and transportation of heavy goods. A network of more than thirty-five hundred miles of canals linked existing rivers and ports as diverse as London and Bristol with cities like Manchester, Leeds, and Birmingham. The even-more-ambitious plan by Louis Becquey (1760–1849) to link all major French rivers with canals had its political origins in the 1820s but only became a reality when state engineers completed
canals through Burgundy and between the Rhine and Rhône Rivers by the 1850s. Unlike its counterpart in England, much of the French network was planned to stimulate industry and trade, rather than as a response to existing shipping demands. While some early British canals were extremely profitable, as were selected segments of the French network, both systems found themselves eclipsed by the speed and flexibility offered by railways by the 1840s and 1850s. In Prussia centralized planning by industrialists and engineers transformed the river networks of the Ruhr valley and surrounding areas feeding the Rhine into a tightly regulated network of dams and canals designed to support urban, industrial, and shipping demands at the expense of natural environmental conditions.
In the United Kingdom engineers boasted varied backgrounds and uneven educational training, yet came to be seen as pioneers in the development of steam power, railway engineering, and early uses of iron and steel. Scottish and English engineers, including James Watt (1736–1819), built reputations based on hands-on experience and apprenticeship with other engineers, rather than through formal university or technical school training. These informal personal and family networks influenced many engineers, including John Rennie (1761–1821), a Scottish engineer who began his career with Andrew Meikle and worked for Matthew Boulton (1728–1809) and Watt before moving into civil engineering. Rennie's firm executed his designs for numerous canals, bridges, and ports, including dockyards for the Royal Navy. Continuing the family tradition, upon Rennie's death in 1821 his design for London Bridge was supervised by his youngest son. Reputation and personal connections led both Rennie's sons to work for George Stephenson (1781–1848) in the construction of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. The Institution of
Civil Engineers, founded in 1818 and promoted extensively by Thomas Telford (1757–1834), served as a nexus where members developed personal connections as the profession expanded.
In France the state played a central role in the training and employment of civil and mining engineers. The state fostered a public engineering culture through examination-based admission and training at the École Polytechnique. Graduates entered the military and the state's most prestigious engineering corps: the Corps des Ponts et Chaussées (Bridges and Roads) and the Corps des Mines. These corps fostered an internal culture of state service that combined family connections with an ethos of elitism and professional national service. Demand for industrial engineers led to the creation of other of technical schools, including regional Écoles d'Arts et Métiers and the École Centrale, whose graduates tuned machines, designed factory equipment, and operated factories. Social connections and political power allowed state civil engineers to preserve a dominant position politically and in the public eye, even as engineers in other domains gained importance.
German models of engineering training were more varied, but evolved into a tiered system by 1914. At the highest levels, roughly a dozen elite technical schools operated with similar status to universities and offered advanced training that emphasized civil projects and industrial applications. Workers and foremen attended vocational schools, most of which did not require a high school diploma. Between these two systems emerged a wide array of technical schools that required apprenticeship or experience, rather than a high school diploma, as a prerequisite for admission. As engineering practice diversified after the 1870s to include specialists in electricity, chemistry, dyes, armaments, and naval architecture, the German educational model allowed tight collaboration between technical schools and emerging industrial firms.
Engineers across Europe shared the common language of technique and construction challenges, but their projects also bolstered national pride for nations engaged in intense competition in the decades before 1914. British engineers such as George Stephenson, whose locomotive The Rocket propelled him to prominence, and his sometime rival Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806–1859), the architect of the Great Western Railroad, established England as a leader in the design of railway bridges, tunnels, and viaducts. Overseas, French engineers could point triumphantly to the Suez Canal or, closer to home, to Gustave Eiffel's (1832–1923) elegant use of iron in the elegant Garabit Viaduct in Cantal, France (1884), and his three-hundred-meter tower in Paris (1889). An alpine rail tunnel in Mount Cenis between France and Italy and the St. Gotthard tunnel connecting Germany to Italy via Switzerland, showcased the engineering prowess of French and Swiss engineers while at the same time opening an era of international cooperation and rapid rail communication to Italy and the Mediterranean.
Engineers occupied a vital position in nineteenth-century society. They used their technocratic expertise to balance natural resources, plan for industrial and urban growth, and mediate between diverse constituencies. This monumental task of "mastering" nature in the service of modern society brought the world closer together and created enduring symbols of national pride.
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