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History & Heritage Committee Meets, Tackles Varied Issues

The Committee had its annual face-to-face meeting on July 27 at ASCE headquarters in Reston, Virginia.

 History and Heritage Members
C. Reese, R. Wiltshire, L. Pierce, F. Griggs, H.
Petroski, D. Gilbert, R. Hull, B. Dennis

Stefan Jaeger, Managing Director, Member and Corporate Communications sat in for a part of the meeting. The Lower Fox River Navigation System in Wisconsin nomination was considered and after a description of the project by Frank Griggs, the committee was unanimous in its decision to not recommend it as a NHCEL. The committee recommended that C. Reese urge the section to designate it as a State HCEL.

A long discussion was held on the role the HHC would be playing in the new organization, which placed it as one of the constituent committees of the Committee on Advancing the Profession (CAP). The discussion was triggered by a statement in the minutes of CAP --“What have we learned from history that we can use to advance the profession?” This seemed to imply that CAP did not know how history is used to advance the profession. It was concluded that HHC should write a letter to CAP answering that question. Dave Gilbert volunteered to write the letter. (Note the letter was written after suggestions from the committee on the draft Dave had written and sent to CAP prior to their meeting. That letter is as follows:


To:            Committee on Advancing the Profession

From:        History and Heritage Committee

Date:         August 13, 2013

Subject:     History and Advancing the Profession

During its meeting on July 27, 2013, the History and Heritage Committee’s (HHC) members discussed the question that appeared in Subsection of the CAP’s June 29-30, 2013, Meeting Minutes:

 “CAP pondered the question ‘What have we learned from history that we can use to advance the profession?’ “  

We would like to address and answer this question for the CAP and point out to CAP’s members the importance of ASCE’s history and heritage to the society’s goal of advancing the civil engineering profession.

The HHC would like to take this opportunity to communicate with the CAP to explain how our committee’s efforts contribute significantly to the goal of advancing the civil engineering profession. A quote by Dr. Henry Petroski, outgoing Chair of the HHC, is most appropriate:

 “Every profession has a history, and the degree to which that history is known, remembered, preserved, honored, and used determines to a great extent the degree to which the profession knows and understands itself and is acknowledged and respected as a profession outside the confines of its own practice. ---“  

More specifically, ASCE states: “The ASCE History and Heritage Committee is responsible for originating and conducting programs that relate to the history and heritage of the civil engineering profession and that promote local, regional, national, and international efforts to create public and member understanding of civil engineering and its contribution to the development of society.”

All civil engineering history, be it recent or much older, serves to advance the profession many ways. It provides inspiration to accept major challenges and entice young people into the profession. The lessons of successful civil engineers and their projects as well as those that unfortunately failed are vital to our professional practice. Therefore, a major emphasis by the HHC is the celebration of civil engineering projects and the civil engineers involved, which collectively have lead the profession’s advancement and created its future. The HHC was formed in 1964 because ASCE recognized that the contributions of civil engineers had largely gone unnoticed by the public and by the profession itself. History is very much a part of civil engineering practice all the time and at many levels.

The current HHC is comprised of eight nation-wide members with diverse civil engineering backgrounds, including structural, geotechnical, environmental, construction, transportation, and water resources and who have come from academia, government, and the private industry. There is considerable civil engineering history and specialty knowledge among the HHC’s members as well, including: bridges, canals, dams, mapping, surveying, failure forensics, etc. Among its responsibilities, the HHC coordinates with more than 70 individual sections (including over 162 branches) usually through their HHCs. All of our HHC’s members contribute, in varying degrees, to the advancement of the profession through promoting our civil engineering history with the public and other civil engineers in their respective regions.

In recent years, the HHC has collaborated with many other national civil engineering societies, such as the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) in Great Britain, the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering (CSCE), Engineers Australia (EA), Association of Civil Engineers, Spain (AIC), The Institution of Engineers, Chile (IIC) and the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE), so our HHC relationships are very much worldwide. The HHC has also collaborated with several other engineering societies within the U.S., including ASME and IEEE, regarding engineering history efforts. The HHC also collaborates with the history and heritage committees within ASCE’s institutes, such as EWRI.

Below is a summary of recent programs and activities through which the HHC has worked to enhance the knowledge of civil engineering history and thereby advance the profession:

• The Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks Program provides good outreach opportunities to the public, engineers, local politicians and leaders, and foreign societies through recognition of and dedication ceremonies for various historic civil engineering landmarks. The citations included on the bronze plaques installed at the newer ASCE landmarks provide an ongoing communication with the public. Most people come away from the landmark dedication ceremonies with a better understanding of what civil engineers do and how we make life better for people and society in general, and our ASCE plaques continue this message. Our ASCE plaques now number about 215 nationally and 49 internationally. Bit by bit and day-by-day, these HHC efforts help to advance the civil engineering profession. Information on these historic civil engineering landmarks is available through ASCE’s website.

• The HHC has organized and/or contributed to a number of recent ASCE symposiums, seminars, and section celebrations, including:

o ASCE’s 150th anniversary celebration in 2002;

o John Roebling’s 200th birthday celebration in Brooklyn, NY in 2006;

o The Hoover Dam 75th anniversary history symposium in Las Vegas, NV in 2010;

o Clarification of John Ellis’ contributions to the design of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, CA in 2012;

o A proposal for the Panama Canal 100th anniversary history symposium in Panama in 2014; and

o Coordination with various ASCE sections since 2005 to celebrate their 100th anniversaries.

• Since 2007, the HHC’s Frank Griggs has published a bi-monthly History and Heritage Newsletter that is now accessible through ASCE’s website.

• A bibliography of civil engineering history books and DVDs has been created and is available for researches and others through the ASCE website.

• The HHC also reviews each draft History Lesson article that is published in ASCE’s Civil Engineering so as to assure the correctness of facts and engineering terminology.

• The HHC is developing a series of short essays on ASCE’s Notable Engineers (started as part of the 150th anniversary celebration in 2002) that is also available to the general public and engineers through the ASCE website.

• Recording of Oral Histories is an ongoing HHC effort with selected civil engineering legends that captures important historical information about people, the civil engineering profession, and our important projects.

• A newly created program is the creation and production of Landmark Brochures that will provide more detailed information than is found on the ASCE plaques. These will be available through the website for use by ASCE’s sections and branches for distribution to the public, schools, visitors, etc.

Each of these activities and programs may appear to be incremental or small, but in aggregate they are a large and important effort. The HHC hopes that this explanation of its given purpose, goals, and activities will serve to make CAP more aware of why and how the HHC contributes significantly to the CAP’s goal of advancing the civil engineering profession.


The committee has been informed that CAP discussed the letter at their August 14, 2013 meeting and the new Chair, Renee Schwecke, noted that the committee had learned a lot from it.

Bernie Dennis then reported on his efforts to have a history session included in the 2014 National meeting of ASCE in Panama City. The organizers had already locked in on a session dealing with Giga projects around the world and over time and not specifically on the Panama Canal, which was the intent of the HHC. Bernie indicated that he would help the organizing committee find some speakers and Frank Griggs indicated he would try to get David McCullough as a Keynote speaker.

The meeting ended with the Committee presenting Henry Petroski with a Certificate of Appreciation for his years as chairman of the committee. The certificate stated:

Certificate of Appreciation  

The Committee on the History and Heritage of American Civil Engineering having the pleasure, and honor, of working with Dr. Henry Petroski as Chairman over the period of 2001 to 2013, presents this token of the esteem to which he is held by the committee, the Society, the Profession and the general public.

His guidance, commitment, example, and dedication to the history of the profession has been an inspiration to all who have served with him on the committee.

The committee thanks him for his efforts and wishes him well in his future pursuits.

Signed this day July 27, 2013