Every year, Indians celebrate engineers on 15 September - the birthday of the most famous Indian civil engineer, Sir Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya. Civil Engineers are key to building the backbone of cities that we live and work in. To celebrate Engineer’s Day, we’ve put together a list of six Civil Engineers that you should know about.
Well, it would be rude not to start with him, wouldn’t it? Often referred to simply as, Sir MV, Visvesvaraya was, and indeed still is, a titan of civil engineering in India. His career spanned flood protection systems, dams, city planning and economics to name just a few.
But he is perhaps best remembered for his groundbreaking block system, which involved automated doors used to close overflow. This design has since been exported all over the world and fundamentally changed water storage during the 20th century.
It is no understatement to call Visvesvaraya, who studied at the famed College of Engineering in Pune, the father of Indian engineering. He received not only a knighthood from King George V but also India’s highest honour, the Bharat Ratna. Yet while his achievements stand out, most remember his compassion and dedication to improve the lives of those around him. Sir MV, Visvesvaraya - happy birthday.
The man who came in second in BBC poll in 2006 to discover the 100 Greatest Britons (he was beaten out by a certain Winston Churchill) remains one of the most influential figures in British engineering. Educated at the University of Caen then prestigious Lycée Henri-IV in Paris, Brunel returned to Britain with a degree in engineering in 1822.
There seemed little that Brunel could not put his mind to and achievements ranged from railways to boats, from bridges to tunnels. He designed the SS Great Britain which launched in 1843 and became the first propeller-driven, ocean-going, iron ship and at the time was the largest vessel in the world. The Thames Tunnel was the first burrow below London’s Thames River while his work on the Great Western Railway line set the standard for how railways would be constructed for decades to come.
As the 2006 poll suggests, Brunel is a name that continues to echo nearly 150 years after his death.
Of the names on this list, that of Beatrice Shilling might be the most obscure, but her role in the development of aviation during World War II places her in the highest of categories.
For four months in 1940, Britain was really on the ropes. Hitler, seemingly preparing his invasion, sent wave after wave of German bombers across the channel to Britain. Tasked with intercepting them were brave legions of men in Spitfire and Hurricane aircrafts. Their courage wasn’t in question, but their planes were. Pilots were reporting a loss of power or complete engine cut out when operating in combat, particularly when diving. It was sometimes a fatal flaw.
At the time Beatrice Shilling was working as a scientific officer with the Royal Aircraft Establishment. A keen motorcyclist, she could often be found racing motorbikes at Docklands before the war and become only the second woman ever to go above 100 miles per hour. She had studied electrical engineering at the University of Manchester and also gained a Master of Science degree in mechanical engineering.
She will forever be known as the inventor of ‘the orifice’, a simple restrictor device that could be placed inside the engines of the Spitfire and Hurricanes that would prevent them cutting out while diving. Who knows, Britain’s path during the war might have been very different had it not been for Shilling’s simple invention.
Just in case you thought we wouldn’t squeeze any modern names onto this list. Elon Musk is of course so much more than simply a civil engineer and his exploits seem to increase year in year out. Engineer, industrial designer, entrepreneur, philanthropist - I could probably go on but I’ll stop. He graduated in 1997 with two BA Honours degrees, one in Economics and the other in Physics.
Whether you know him from Space X, Tesla, the crazy tunnel boring project under LA, the Hyperloop, the recent news that his company Neuralink has successfully implanted a computer chip inside the brain of a pig - or even his groundbreaking work with AI - you’ve almost certainly heard of this man. Quite simply he is a person who is changing the world around us, even while you’re reading this article.
John Smeaton was the first to refer to himself as a civil engineer back in the 18th century and has since come to be known as the father of civil engineering. His work with bridges, canals, lighthouses, harbours and mills can still be found across the UK.
He was also a mechanical engineer and accomplished physicists - it was with one of Smeaton’s equations that the Wright Brothers first devised their own lift equation for the flight of the first aeroplane. His re-design of cement eventually led to the introduction of Portland cement which installed the substance as the most important building material of the time, something that hasn’t changed a whole lot in over 200 years.
It might sound like an awfully long time ago, but much of what we do now started with John Smeaton.
While those on our list certainly had to work hard for what they achieved, none of them were born a woman in the heavily patriarchal society of the late 19th century.
Nora Stanton Barney does not boast the same kind of civil engineering achievements as others, but her impact on the industry should not be diminished. In an age when women were expected to do little more than become obedient housewives, a woman from Basingstoke in Britain showed a different way to do things.
The first female engineering graduate from Cornell University she also went on to become the first woman admitted into the American Society of Civil Engineers. Her work ranged from bridges and water supplies to steels works and the New York State Public Service Commission.
Her first marriage broke down reportedly because her husband was uncomfortable with his wife not conforming to the times. He gave her an ultimatum - relinquish your career or divorce. She chose the second. Barney would go on to champion the suffragette movement, along with equal rights and world peace.
Make no mistake about it, this was a woman that paved the way.
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Oli lives in London and is a writer and photographer.