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The British consulting engineers who created the world’s infrastructure

Leading author and expert Hugh Ferguson will detail the evolution of British consulting engineers at the upcoming Smeaton Lecture.

John Smeaton
John Smeaton

British consulting engineers emerged in the 18th century on the back of the Industrial Revolution and, in particular, a boom in canal building.

John Smeaton, famed for his Eddystone lighthouse and the Forth & Clyde Canal, set the example of what a consulting engineer should be: a professional, as distinct from a tradesperson or employee, working always for a fee and never holding a financial interest in projects undertaken.

Independent and able to give independent advice, not all of Smeaton’s successors followed his example so rigorously, but the foundation was set for a profession which enjoyed extraordinary success through the 19th century, based on pioneering work on British railways. They were in demand in Britain and across much of the world: British consulting engineers designed the first main railway in France, as well as most of the railways in South America.

Smeaton Lecture 2020
The online Smeaton Lecture takes place on 21 July – sign up now

And it was not just railways. Other works included dams and reservoirs, roads and railways, ports harbours and lighthouses, waterworks and sewerage, and (later) power stations and large buildings. Soon, they were not just civil engineers. New technologies emerged promoting the roles of gas engineers, mechanical and electrical engineers.

Another international boom for consulting engineers came in the post-war era, spurred on by international aid, oil in the Middle East and rapid infrastructure development in Hong Kong. International consulting engineering grew and flourished: Rendel Palmer & Tritton, John Taylor & Sons, Watson Hawksley, Preece Cardew & Rider, Binnie & Partners, Kennedy & Donkin, Sir William Halcrow & Partners, Mott Hay & Anderson, Babtie Shaw & Morton, Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners, Merz & McLellan, Freeman Fox & Partners, G Maunsell & Partners, Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick & Partners, Ove Arup and Partners, WS Atkins and Partners, and many more.

Great projects were completed, from Sydney Opera House in Australia and Mangla Dam in Pakistan, to the Thames Barrier and the Channel Tunnel in the UK. There were also tragedies and lessons learned, such as the box girder bridge failures of the 1970s and the Abbeystead disaster of the 1980s.

Privatisation in the eighties diverted swathes of UK work from the public sector to consulting engineers. This, in turn, prompted further growth, which led (in part) to a flurry of mergers and takeovers - largely by firms from the US and Northern Europe such as AECOM, Jacobs, Arcadis and Ramboll.

Many of today’s firms are almost unrecognisable from those around a generation ago: more commercial, more multi-disciplined – and much, much bigger. Arguably, they are enjoying greater success and doing more good than ever before. But their origins, roots and the reasons for their success, should not be forgotten.

Read ‘ The Consulting Engineers’ by Hugh Ferguson and Mike Chrimes.

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