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12 of the greatest civil engineers of all time

Date
18 February 2022

Check out our list of engineers from history who've had a meaningful impact on the profession, the industry, and our institution.

12 of the greatest civil engineers of all time
Some of the great inventions include the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge, designed by the one-and-only Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Image credit: Jarred C/Unsplash

We recognise the following engineers for their pioneering role in civil engineering as a profession and for revolutionising many of the techniques that we still use to this day.

See who were members, and even presidents, of ICE!

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Voted the second greatest Briton of all time (after Winston Churchill), Isambard Kingdom Brunel had a remarkable impact on civil engineering as a profession.

As the chief engineer for the Great Western Railway (GWR), Brunel designed and innovated on tunnels, bridges, viaducts, and rail itself by introducing what is known as the broad gauge.

Brunel also designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, although it was completed after his death.

Brunel was a member of ICE from 1829 and he served as vice president from 1850 to 1859.

John Smeaton

John Smeaton

Known as the ‘father of civil engineering’, John Smeaton designed the new Eddystone Lighthouse, also known as Smeaton’s Tower, off the coast of Plymouth after it was destroyed by a fire in December 1755.

Pioneering the use of cast iron in water and windmill mechanisms, he became one of the busiest consulting civil engineering during the second half of the 18th century.

Smeaton also founded the first engineering society in the world. The Society of Civil Engineers was inaugurated in 1771. It’s now known as the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers and still meets at the ICE headquarters, One Great George Street, to this day.

Gustave Eiffel

Gustave Eiffel

The ‘magician of iron’, Gustave Eiffel, designed some of the most iconic structures of our time, including the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty.

He was a master in structural mechanical work and material economy. In fact, did you know that if you melted the Eiffel Tower, it would only fill up its base about two and a half inches deep? And that’s over 12,000 different components-worth of metal!

Eiffel was a member of the French Society of Civil Engineers, presiding over it in 1889.

John Bradfield

John Bradfield

John Bradfield, or the ‘father of modern Sydney’ was the Australian civil engineer behind the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge, which opened in 1932.

He was also responsible for proposing a grand plan for an underground electric railway system, inspired by those in London and New York. It is now known as the City Circle.

Bradfield was an associate member of ICE from 1893.

Apollodorus of Damascus

Apollodorus of Damascus

Greek engineer and architect, Apollodorus of Damascus pioneered many techniques and structures that would inspire the civil engineers of the future.

Of his designs, erected during Emperor Trajan’s rule (98-117AD), Trajan’s Bridge is the most well-known. The impressive structure crossed the Danube river and extended 1135m across.

He was also responsible for designing the Roman baths, the Forum, Trajan’s column, Trajan’s market, and the Ulpia Basilica in Rome.

Sir Joseph William Bazalgette

Sir Joseph William Bazalgette

Sir Joseph William Bazalgette, or ICE’s Capitan Sanitation, was a civil engineer in the 19th century who built London’s first sewer network (still in use today). His work helped wipe out cholera from the capital, which had turned into a deadly epidemic at the time.

He also designed the Albert, Victoria, and Chelsea embankments as part of his sewer system in central London.

During 1884, Bazalgette was the 24th President of ICE.

Squire Whipple

Squire Whipple

Squire Whipple was known as ‘the father of iron bridge-building in America'. He famously provided the first scientific methodology for bridge construction.

Whipple was a proponent of using cast iron to build bridges in place of timber bridges, which were more vulnerable to inclement weather and damage. Whipple was working at the Erie Canal during this time and persuaded authorities to take his proposal seriously. So determined was he to make them see his perspective that he ultimately built an iron truss bridge at his own expense.

It paid off, and Whipple's efforts ultimately resulted in hundreds of bow-string truss bridges being built across the canal.

George Stephenson

George Stephenson

George Stephenson was an eminent civil and mechanical engineer known as the ‘Father of Railways.’ Stephenson was responsible for numerous inventions, including ‘The Geordie Lamp,’ the first locomotive steam train, and Stephenson’s gauge.

He later founded the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and shared a close relationship with the Institution of Civil Engineers. He became a member in 1853, later donating a portion of his land, which allowed for expanding the institution's premises.

Sir Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya

Sir Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya

Sir Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya was a civil engineer, statesman and the 19th Diwan of Mysore. He worked in water irrigation, designing the Krishna Raja Sagara dam.

The dam changed the lives of the people of Mandya, providing drinking water for civilians and transforming wasteland into fertile ground for farming. He also designed an innovative flood- protection system for the city of Hyderabad.

Visvesvaraya was an honorary member of ICE.

John Rennie

John Rennie

John Rennie was one of the 19th century’s most eminent civil engineers, most famous for his work on the capital’s bridges, including Waterloo Bridge, the New London Bridge and Southwark Bridge.

He designed and improved everything from the Kennet and Avon Canal in Wiltshire to the London and East and West India Docks throughout his career.

Dorothy Buchanan

Dorothy Buchanan

Dorothy Buchanan was the first female member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

Buchanan’s first break came when she met Sir Ralph Freeman, senior partner at Douglas Fox & Partners. Freeman was also providing consultancy advice to the steelwork contractors Dorman Long and was recruiting staff to work on Sydney Harbour Bridge. Freeman recruited Buchanan to work on the bridge design team under Dorman Long.

Buchanan worked on several notable projects throughout her career, ranging from the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne to the Silent Valley Reservoir in Northern Ireland.

Thomas Telford

Thomas Telford

Thomas Telford enjoyed an illustrious career in engineering, having worked on some of the most significant infrastructure projects in the UK, including the design and construction of the the Menai Suspension Bridge.

Telford also worked extensively on designing and improving canals, provided expert consultancy for international infrastructure projects, and worked on roads in the Scottish Lowlands.

Telford became the first president of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1820.

  • Jessica Beasley, communications executive at ICE
  • Ana Bottle, assistant digital content editor at ICE