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Viewpoints: Early ASCE Leaders

J. Elfreth Watkins, Robert Fletcher

“From an examination of the Transactions and Proceedings of the American Society of Civil Engineers, I find that it has not been customary to present historical papers at conventions, save in the annual presidential address, or in the memoirs of the pioneer members of the Society, two or three of whom have placed their reminiscences on record. But I have overcome any scruples that might have deterred me from presenting this paper, from the fact that, while it is the province of many of the members of this Society to direct the progress of engineering science in the future, it is my function, in the institution [Smithsonian Institution] with which I am connected, to assist in preserving the history of the achievements of the past. I feel, therefore, that I need make no apology for asking your attention to a subject which has for me, at least, the most fascinating interest.” (J. Elfreth Watkins, “The Beginnings of Engineering,” Transactions ASCE, Vol. XXIV May 1891, pages 310- 382)

A perusal of ASCE Journal articles indicates that the same situation that existed in 1891 exists today. Many journals outright state they do not accept historical articles and others through their peer reviewers do not approve historical articles. An attempt was made several years ago by your editor to institute an ASCE Journal on the History and Heritage of American Civil Engineering but it wasn’t supported by the History and Heritage Committee and the proposal died. One reason for the proposal failing was that the committee was not convinced that there would be sufficient support in the form of contributors of rigorous papers to such a journal, and without at least that the ASCE publications committee would not likely support the idea. Several years earlier ASCE was invited to lend support, but not necessarily financial support, to a new ICE Journal on History and Heritage, but ASCE had declined to participate. Now, an ASCE journal on history and heritage would be in competition with the already established ICE journal, which itself has found identifying authors of articles to be a constant struggle.

“What shall make sure the personal integrity and honesty of the graduate. These are days of special temptation; the bribing of inspectors has long been notorious; the engineering profession is in constant touch with political corruption everywhere. The engineer’s ideal of the best possible material and workmanship; at the least cost to the pubic or individual is directly contrary to that of the municipal manager and contractor whose attitude is, ‘What is there in it for us!’ The engineering college or institute which fails to set the highest moral standard before its students is seriously delinquent. The most notable engineers of the past have been distinguished for a delicate sense of honor, which shunned even a remote connection of personal interest with professional duty. Such men were above suspicion under trying circumstances. It should be part of the education of the student to become acquainted with the history of his profession and especially with the biographies of its honored exponents. And not only the past but the present will furnish him practical ideals of duty and integrity among the leaders of the profession to-day.”(Robert Fletcher, “Engineering Education,” Transactions ASCE, Vol. LIV, Part 4, International Engineering Congress 1905, pages 455-481)