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James Croes: Civil Engineering and Scientific Progress

On June 25, 1901 James Croes gave the Presidential Address to the Society at the Annual Convention in Niagara Falls, New York. His talk was entitled, A Century of Civil Engineering. In it he gave a thorough history of engineering and the strides made in civil engineering and the impact those strides had on the United States. Reading it makes one think what the President of ASCE would have said in 2001 about the changes that had occurred on the 20th century and the impact civil engineering had on those changes. Croes began with:

The century which has just passed, the nineteenth of the Christian era, is distinguished from any of the preceding hundred-year periods in the world's history by the advances made in the co-operation of investigators in numerous branches of science in the formulation of doctrines regarding the nature and co-ordination of natural phenomena, which stand the test of experiment and calculation, thus leading to a nearer approximation to the understanding of the laws which govern such phenomena and so to the development into a profession of the “Art of directing the great sources of Power in Nature for the use and convenience of Man,” which Art is entitled Civil Engineering. This definition is itself one of the most noteworthy products of the Nineteenth Century, and a study of the sequence of events and reasoning which led to its formulation is not without interest.

He continued:

Now, up to the beginning of the seventeenth century of the Christian era, there had been no organized physical experimentation, on a comprehensive scale, and intelligent reasoning there from. The speculations as to the laws of Nature which had been made from time to time had been purely efforts of the imagination, and were unsustained by either practical demonstration or analytical reasoning. Various hypotheses had been framed, on insufficient or incorrect premises, and some of them had been so near the truth as to actually delay the progress of the truth, by the appearance of exactness in the reasoning from them, up to a certain point.

Really, the civil engineer had been practicing his art and directing the forces of Nature for the use and convenience of man, but without any conception of what those forces were, or how they acted, or of why he did anything, or what the result of it would be, unless he had done the same thing before in the same way. He did not know that "the earth moved, and lie had no idea why or at what rate a stone fell to the earth, or water ran down hill. He had no measure of heat or light, and used no power but that which the muscles of an animal produced. And yet he had built the Pyramids, the Parthenon and the Pantheon; had constructed aqueducts, canals and sewers; had regulated and maintained the rivers of China for thousands of years; and had just been recognized, on account of his labors in protecting the low lauds of Holland and the shores of Italian rivers from the encroachments of the water, as holding a distinct rank among the workers of the world.

After giving his history of 17th, 18th, and 19th century science and engineering, he concluded with:

Recognizing, then, that progress is a law of Nature, the acceleration of progress is the aim of Civil Engineering. It strives to simulate the results of the slow processes of Nature, by causing the sources of power to act rapidly in any desired direction. Appreciating, too, the fact that there is constant progress, and that what now seems admirably adapted to our needs may in a short time require to be superseded by improved structures and processes, the tendency of the time is toward the production of works which will have a definite term of life, rather than toward the construction of everlasting monuments. We see that in the old nations, where the effort to build for eternity was made, time has outstripped the intent of the builders and what is antiquated is useless, and we see the same thing in our own streets today. The idea of building a monumental structure which will hand one’s name down to future ages is a fascinating one, but it is simply a survival of the engineering of the Pharaohs.

The most thorough exemplar of the condition of civil engineering at the beginning of the twentieth century is the modern office building in a great city. One hundred years ago, the man of enterprise who resided 50 miles from a large city and wished to consult an engineer regarding a project for a new canal, arose before daylight, struck a spark from his flint and steel, which falling on a scrap of tinder was blown by him into flame and from that a tallow dip was lighted. In the same primitive manner, the wood fire was kindled on the kitchen hearth and his breakfast was cooked in a pot and kettle suspended from the iron crane in the fireplace. Entering the cumbrous stage coach, hung on leather springs, which passed his door, he was driven over muddy roads, crossing the narrow streams on wooden trestle bridges and the navigable rivers on a ferry boat, the paddle wheels of which were turned by a mule on a treadmill. At last he was landed in the city where he walked through dirty streets paved with cobble stones until he reached his destination, a plain three-story brick building founded on sand, with a damp cellar and a cesspool in the back yard. Entering a dark hall he climbed a wooden staircase and was ushered into a neat room, rag-carpeted, warmed by a wood fire on the open hearth and lighted by a sperm oil lamp with one wick, for it was dark by this time. No wonder that before proceeding to business he was glad to take a good stiff noggin of New England rum.

Today, his grandson, living at the old homestead, while comfortably eating his breakfast, which has been cooked over a gas range, reads in his morning paper that the high dam of the irrigation reservoir in Arizona, in which he is interested, sprang a leak the day before, and he telegraphs to his engineer in the city that he will meet him at his office at noon. Then, striking a match, he lights the lamp of his automobile which is fed by petroleum brought 200 miles underground in pipes from the wells, rolls over macadamized roads to the railroad station, where he boards a luxuriously appointed train, by which he is carried above all highways, through tunnels, under rivers, or across them on long-span steel bridges, and in an hour is deposited in the heart of the city, where he has his choice of proceeding to his destination through clean and asphalt-paved streets in electric surface cars at 9 miles an hour, elevated steam cars at 12 miles an hour, or through well-lighted and ventilated tunnels at 15 miles an hour. Reaching the spot his grandfather had visited, he finds there a huge and highly decorated building, twenty or more stories high. Founded on the primeval rock, far below the surface of the natural ground, the superjacent strata of compressible material having been penetrated by caissons of sheet metal sunk by the use of air, compressed by powerful pumps driven by steam or electricity generated at a power station half a mile or more away, and these caissons filled with a manufactured rock such as the ordinary processes of Nature would require millions of years to produce, there is erected a cage of steel, the composition of which has been specified, and the form and mode of construction of which have been so computed that the force of the elements cannot overthrow the structure or even cause it to sway perceptibly. Towering above the courts of Law, the temples of Religion and the palaces of the Arts, the meshes of this mighty cage are filled with products of the earth, the mine and the forest, transformed so as to be strong and light and incombustible, and all interwoven with pipes and wires, each in its proper place and noted on the plans. In one set of these pipes there is pure water, which has been collected from a mountain area of igneous geological formation, depopulated and free from swamps, on which a record of the daily rainfall is kept, and in which impounding reservoirs have been constructed by masonry dams across its valleys. From these reservoirs, the water, after filtration through clean sand, is conveyed 30 or 40 miles through steel or masonry conduits to covered reservoirs whence it is drawn as needed through cast-iron pipes to the building where it is to be used, and there distributed to all parts of it, chilled nearly to the freezing point through one system of pipes or heated nearly to the boiling point, through another system. Another set of pipes carries steam which, passing through radiators, keeps the temperature of the air throughout the building at the proper standard for comfort. Sanitary conveniences are provided everywhere, and all wastes are consumed within the building by the surplus heat generated, leaving only ashes to be removed. Wires convey electric currents to all points, so that the occupant of a room, sitting at his desk, can by the touch of a button ventilate his apartment, illuminate it, call a messenger, be kept informed of every fluctuation in the markets, converse with anybody who is not “busy” within 40 miles of where he sits and if entirely “up to date” can require his autograph and portrait to be reproduced before his eyes for identification. He dictates his correspondence and his memoranda, and "takes his pen in hand " only to sign his name. He need not leave his seat except to consult the photograph hanging on his wall, which shows to him the latest condition of the mine, the railroad, the arid lands irrigated, the swamps reclaimed, the bridge in progress, the steamship, the water-works, the tunnel or the railroad, the dam, the filter or the sewage works, the town, the machine, the power plant or the manufacturing establishment in which he is most interested.

Entering the brilliantly lighted hallway of this building, the air of which is kept in circulation by the plunging up and down of half a dozen elevators, the visitor is lifted at a speed of 500 ft. a minute, past floor after floor, crowded with the offices of financiers, managers and prompters of traffic and of trade, lawyers, chemists, contractors, manufacturers, to the headquarters of the controlling genius of the whole organism, the Civil Engineer. For he it is to whom all the members of this microcosm must apply for aid and advice in the successful operation of their respective occupations. It is not his to mechanically transform elements into matter, or matter into other forms, or to show how energy may be produced, but to direct the application of energy to the various forms of matter, original or produced, in such way as to bring about the most satisfactory results in the most speedy and economical manner.

He has grown with the growth of the nineteenth century, and is, so far as the relations between man and matter are concerned, its most striking product. And so, while the definition given in the ‘American Edition of The Encyclopedia,” which appeared at the beginning of the century, that: “Civil Engineers are a denomination which comprises an order or profession of persons highly respectable for their talents and scientific attainments and eminently useful under this appellation,” is still true, it is hardly probable that the compiler of the Twentieth Century Encyclopedia will be content to let it stand without further explanation.

But the end is not yet: there are still many problems of Nature unsolved. The experience of every day shows that there are sources of power not yet fully developed, and we cannot but say with the great poet:

“I doubt not through the ages one increasing purpose runs,
And the thoughts of men are widened with the process of the suns.” [Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1842]