Want to Call Yourself a Professional Civil Engineer? Know Your History

October 7, 2020

Everyone knows the famous quote, “Know your history or you’ll be doomed to repeat it.”

But in the world of civil engineering, you’ll find a much less cynical spin.

“Know your history, so that you can successfully repeat it!”

Steve Pennington, P.E., L.S., M.ASCE, a senior manager for Geo-Instruments Inc. in Washington, D.C., is a an advocate for the value in understanding the history of the civil engineering profession.

A longtime member of the ASCE National Capital Section’s History and Heritage Committee, Pennington has a new book out this month, published by ASCE, detailing the history of Benjamin Wright, the man designated as the “father of American civil engineering.”

Pennington talked recently with ASCE News about Benjamin Wright’s career and why every professional civil engineer should make it a point to learn their profession’s history.

ASCE News: So, what earned Benjamin Wright the “father of American civil engineering” title?

Pennington: The father of the profession, traditionally, is considered John Smeaton, from England.

In the late 1960s, the mandate for ASCE was to find someone we could consider the father of the profession in America. So, the search went out, and it led to the declaration of Benjamin Wright as the father of the profession in the United States.

The formal resolution has about eight or nine “whereas”es as to why he’s considered the father. And the three most important ones are that:

First, he was the chief engineer on America’s first great public works project, the Erie Canal.

Second, he was a mentor to many young civil engineers who went on to have careers of note – John Jervis with the Croton Aqueduct, Charles Ellet with the Wheeling Suspension Bridge; Horatio Allen with his development of railroads; and others.

And third, Wright was active in the effort to establish a professional society, as the chairman of the committee to draft a constitution for the proposed society. The story goes that the constitution was not ratified and the effort did not take, and it was only in 1852 that the effort was rekindled and they were able to get the organization (ASCE) established.


ASCE News: Obviously, the Erie Canal transformed the country. What most impresses you about that project or Wright’s work in general?

Pennington: At that time, nothing in America had been undertaken of that size. Any project that had been done that you’d call an engineering effort was very small in terms of concept. You might have a breakwater in a harbor. You might have a short canal. But the Erie Canal was the first effort on a large scale. It was unprecedented.

There’s an argument, if you really get into the history of transportation in this country, that the relative magnitude of the Erie Canal and its importance to American society was not replicated until the interstate highway system began in the 1950s.

The Erie Canal is what made New York City what it is. New York City would not be the great political and economic center had it not been for the Erie Canal. For Wright and his engineering group, everything was a challenge with all they had to overcome. Excavation was done by hand, so steps had to be taken to create new ways to speed up the process and improve production. They came up with ways to bring down trees quickly, they devised winches to remove stumps, they improved the horse drawn plow to decrease time spent in excavation, and most importantly they discovered sources of hydraulic cement to allow cost effective completion of the numerous masonry structures throughout the canal. Everything done was new. They had nothing to go on.

It was an enormous undertaking from an engineering standpoint to get that completed, and Wright was able to manage it and get it done.

ASCE News: Why do you think it’s important for civil engineers, especially younger professionals, to be aware of who he is and that history?

Pennington: I’m not the only one who has said this – civil engineering is a profession, not a trade.

And as a professional, if you’re going to be a civil engineer and call yourself a professional, you have to have a basic fundamental understanding of your history and how it relates to society.

You don’t have to have an academic understanding, but just a basic understanding of your history – the great projects, the great engineers. Because it’s from the experiences of those men and women who came before us that lessons are learned today.

This is not a new concept. There have been many papers delivered and presentations made on the idea that as a professional it’s important that he or she knows their history.

As part of that history, it’s important to know the beginning point here in America. Where did it all begin and why? It’s almost a genealogy. As you trace back the projects you can almost develop a family tree of sorts.

And that beginning point would be with Benjamin Wright.


Preorder your copy of “Benjamin Wright: Father of American Civil Engineering” by Steven M. Pennington.

Pennington will lead a session about Wright at the ASCE 2020 Convention, Oct. 29. Learn more.

1 Comment
  • Avatar Robert Hinton, PE

    He was one of the great new world engineers. But, the Romans with the Aqueducts, and Egyptians with the Pyramids truly had nothing like the tools of the 1800’s, and built water transfer structures, some of which are still in use today. Pyramids, that we still have not figured out how they did it.
    Unfortunately, today we have young engineers, using software, designing projects, that if given a pile of field books to start with, would not be able to get started. They are assuming the GIS data is correct, and depend on that assumption.
    In the middle 50’s, the large firms like Black and Veatch would send a young engineer right out of school, into the field to see how how things work, and don’t work. After several years, they had an understanding of why the plans and specs had to be correct. Today, we hear the phrase “is there a go by”
    F9 may give us a quick answer, but we need to know about what it should be. Benjamin Wright would have had an answer in his head, and would use the computer to confirm his thoughts.

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