Throwback Thursday– Institution for Civil Engineers

I tried to do a Throwback Thursday theme on my blog a few years ago, but I wasn’t very good at scheduling out my time to write blog posts back then, so I only did a few posts. However, I have firm plans in place to continue this theme for at least a few months.

My method is simple. I will be choosing events that I feel have significance during the Regency era that occurred on the anniversary of the posting date, always a Thursday. I think this is more interesting than choosing important events and writing about them. My goal with this project is to bring lesser-known people, events, or subjects to reader attention. Some days there are several exciting anniversaries, and I will have trouble picking just one to address. On other days, it is slim pickings.

I also plan on making the posts rather short. I’ll be using easy to access sources (yes, that means Wikipedia so long as the article is well-cited). This isn’t a research project, and I will allow myself to take the easy way out. I do have a love for original documents, though. Some subjects may come up again on the blog if they pique my interest enough.

Without further ado, here is what you need to know about the Institution for Civil Engineers and why it is important.

Menai Suspension Bridge, c. 1840. The bridge was designed by Thomas Telford and connected the island of Anglesey to mainland Wales.

The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) was founded on Jan 2, 1818, by Henry Robinson Palmer, James Jones, and Joshua Field. It was the first professional organization for civil engineers in the world. At the time, Britain limited formal engineering education to the Royal Engineers, a military corps.

ICE gained a Royal Charter by 1828. Around 1836 they began publishing learned papers. The Institute for Mechanical Engineers grew from its ranks in 1847. Notably, ICE was crucial to the organization of the Great Exhibit of 1851. By the 20th century, they had established exams and qualifications for its members.

However, this was not the first time a group had attempted to create an organization for civil engineers. In 1771, John Smeaton and six other engineers met to form what was called, at the time, the Society of Civil Engineers. The men were all noted civil engineers, and as there was an increased demand for their work, they believed meeting to discuss their various projects would be useful. This organization ended in 1792 upon the death of Smeaton. However, other members soon resurrected it. Its only attempt at a contribution to the profession was the publication of Smeaton’s reports in 1793. At some point in the mid-nineteenth century, the group began calling themselves the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers. It is still alive today, although much smaller than ICE.

Why did a newer society of civil engineers succeed in popularity and usefulness over the older organization? On the most basic level, the Smeatonian Society is a social club with no interest in establishing a professional organization aimed at advancing the education and careers of civil engineers. It was established by men at the top of their careers, whereas ICE was formed by young men who had yet to make a name for themselves. 

However, timing is everything. By 1818, the Napoleonic Wars were over. The bloated British military was reducing its numbers, inflation and unemployment were widespread, civil unrest was growing. If a young man had engineering interests, he could no longer look to the military as the most likely route.

Thomas Telford, 1838. Engraving by W. Raddon.

Until this time, if one desired formal engineering training, the only possibility was via the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. The Corps of Engineers was established in 1716, made entirely of commissioned officers. Civilians were contracted for the manual labor. Non-commissioned engineers were first introduced in 1772 for use in Gibraltar called the Soldier Artificer Company. In 1787, the Corps was granted the additional title of Royal to its name. A corps of non-commissioned soldiers, the Corps of Royal Military Artificers, was also established in 1787 and would be entirely overseen by the Royal Engineers. In 1812, the Gibraltar unit was absorbed by the RE and renamed the Corps of Royal Sappers and Miners.

The British Army grew exponentially during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1816). In 1793, it was a force of 40,000 men. The number swelled to 250,000 at its largest. Ten regiments disbanded following the war. By 1821, the troops had reduced to 100,000, and 30% of those were in colonies such as India. 

Young men needed to find civilian careers, and a long-known adage is that those gainfully employed or pursuing higher education are less likely to cause trouble. 

Another reason for ICE’s success was due to the popularity of its first president, Thomas Telford. Telford was a prominent civil engineer who specialized in roads, bridges, and canals through Britain. In 1806, the King of Sweden consulted him regarding a project. Later, Telford personally oversaw some of the excavation. In 1821, he was named a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Society of Sciences. Telford’s political and social connections were crucial in gaining the royal charter only ten years after the founding of ICE. 

Churchill AVRE with Bobbin lays down reinforced fabric matting to provide support for tanks on soft roadways. Used on D-Day.

The world as we know it today owes a debt to civil engineers. Unlike military engineers, they continue to push the limits on progress even during peace times. Militaries can then build on the knowledge of the latest engineering to fit their needs instead of dealing with an intellectual standstill for years or decades at a time. Civil Engineers are more applicable to the fabric of our everyday lives, as well. I may never require a Bobbin ARVE (armored vehicle, such as tanks) as used on D-Day, but I do drive on roads and bridges daily. 

ICE currently has a membership of 92,000 people in 150 countries, and it all started on this day in 1818. 


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