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What Early ASCE Leaders Said

What early leaders of the Society have said over the years about the importance of having a knowledge of the history of the profession.

This segment of the Newsletter will, over the coming issues, present the thoughts of many 19th and 20th century civil engineers on the subject of Civil Engineering History. The first thoughts are by J. A. L. Waddell one of the leading civil engineers of this period in a talk he gave entitled, “The Advisability Of Instructing Engineering Students In The History Of The Engineering Profession” in 1903. His thoughts are as valid today, over 110 years later, as when they were first presented. 

 J. A. L. Waddell  
 J. A. L. Waddell

He wrote in part,

“The absolute ignorance of students at engineering schools, of young engineers and, it must be confessed, also of many old members of the engineering profession, concerning the history of civil engineering and the names of the prominent engineers of past and present times, is simply astounding!

“Why should such a deplorable state of affairs exist?

“Some may say: ‘Because ours is such a recent profession, it being, in fact, the youngest of all the learned professions.’ Although in one sense this statement may be correct, still the excuse will not suffice; for civil engineering is, in fact, one of the oldest, if not actually the very oldest, of all the professions. In prehistoric times the men who dammed water to irrigate their fields, or who crossed streams by felling trees or by piling rocks in their beds for stepping stones were certainly the engineers of those days and it is more than likely that there were then no lawyers, doctors, or clergymen, because law, medicine, and religion were probably unknown.

“Others may reply: ‘Ours is such a busy profession that its members are ever occupied with the present and looking to the future, so have no time to spare for considering the past.’ This is a good reason but a poor excuse. Moreover, now that the general public recognizes engineering as one of the learned professions, it behooves its members to become conversant with its history and development and familiar with the names and careers of its most prominent men.

“Others may say: ‘The blame lies with the professors of engineering in the technical schools, who pay no attention to such matters as engineering history.’ This is true in a way; but the professors might reply: ‘There is no time in the curriculum to devote to such matters, for there is already more in our courses than can be crowded into the allotted time,’ a lame excuse, indeed, because either the time should be increased or something of less importance should be left out preferably the former.” (Waddell 1903)

Do these excuses sound familiar? Have we made any progress in educating ourselves as well as our students in the history of our profession and the men who were the giants on whose shoulders we now stand? Do ABET and ASCE do any more than pay lip service to the need to encourage and/or require this subject in the curricula of our engineering colleges? Does the “Raise the bar” initiative adequately address this need? We think not!