original photo of ASCE 1888 Convention Library of Congress

Once lost to history, we now know many of the ASCE members who took part in a photograph commemorating its 20th annual convention in 1888 – including two identifications that likely push back the record of women and minorities as members of the Society.

Founded in 1852 to represent members of the civil engineering profession worldwide, ASCE is the oldest engineering society in the United States. Some 36 years later in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, ASCE held its 20th annual convention, marking the occasion with a group photograph and attendee list published in its Transactions.

Before the work of Michael O’Connor, History and Heritage Committee corresponding member, the attendees pictured remained anonymous, as the photograph did not identify the individuals. Using the conference attendee list and photograph, O’Connor researched each person in an attempt to identify the individuals.

photo of Emily Roebling at the ASCE Convention Michael O'Connor
A closer look at Emily Roebling, left, in the ASCE Convention photograph; with her portrait on the right.

Emily Warren Roebling (1843-1903), seen in the first row, center left, in the black dress and hat, famous for her engineering work completing the Brooklyn Bridge, was a conference attendee. Despite a claim that she spoke at an ASCE conference, to date, no mention of her speech or attendance has been located in the Transactions. O’Connor’s work with the 1888 photograph places her at the ASCE annual convention.

The second identification remains nameless at this time, but his presence in the photograph is significant. An African American man stands in the center back of the group. This man appears to be an ASCE member as evidenced by the watch fob shown on his vest and on the vests of multiple white men identified in O’Connor’s annotated photograph. His presence is significant as ASCE’s current history acknowledges the first African American member joined in 1948. O’Connor’s work would push the history of African American membership in ASCE back 60 years to 1888.

ASCE Day is an opportunity to celebrate our history and our future as a society. This image of the 20th annual convention is as thought-provoking today as it was in 1888 when an African American civil engineer was placed in that photograph in such a position.

photo of 1888 Convention Libary of Congress/Michael O'Connor
The 1888 Convention photograph with Michael O'Connor's research into various identities of the attendees included.

Members of ASCE’s History and Heritage Committee have developed a list of notable civil engineers whose actions and careers inspire practicing civil engineers and future members of the profession to strive to make life better for people. The committee is working to expand the list. If you would like to assist, please email Richard Wiltshire at [email protected].