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12 books that have inspired civil engineers

25 August 2022

ICE STEM ambassadors share the titles, fiction and non-fiction, that sparked their imagination and creativity.

12 books that have inspired civil engineers
The books selected offer practical and inspiring advice, sparking many of our STEM ambassadors' interests in civil engineering. Image credit: Shutterstock/vipman

Books have the power to ignite our imaginations, spark our creativity and inspire us. As we continue celebrating Engineering Summer, some of ICE's STEM Ambassadors share the books that have inspired them as engineers and individuals.

ICE STEM Ambassadors help recruit the next generation of civil engineers by running fun and engaging activities with under 18s. 

If you haven’t already, also check out our blog on 11 inspiring books that teach children about engineering – it’s perfect for the young engineers in your life!

1. Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down, J.E Gordon

This pop-science classic is top of STEM Ambassadors Charlotte Wylie and Fergus O’Connor’s lists.

Gordon’s accessible style helps demystify topics ranging from material resilience to safety.

Said to be one of the ’14 books that inspired Elon Musk,’ this book provides vital insights for engineers at every stage of their career.

And with fun chapter titles like ‘How to Design a Worm’, it’s guaranteed pretty much everyone can learn something from it.

2. Ballet Shoes, Noel Streatfeild

Image of STEM Ambassador Sarah Roberts
Image credit: Sarah Roberts

This heart-warming tale of three orphans growing up in 1930s London might not strike you as being closely connected to engineering.

But each of the girls wants to get their name in the history books, ‘and nobody can say it’s because of [their] grandfathers.’

As STEM Ambassador Sarah Roberts explains, it’s a novel that explores ‘different ways to be a girl.’

Ballet Shoes is a celebration of unconventional thought and the power of pursuing your ambition.

While her sisters love ballet and performance, Petrova is passionate about engineering and mechanics.

She holds onto her dream of flying an aircraft, despite having to work on the stage to support her family through poverty.

3. The Frayed Atlantic Edge, David Gange

Image of STEM Ambassador Christopher Grubb
Image credit: Christopher Grubb

Historian David Gange’s vivid exploration of Kayaking in the Atlantic Coasts of Britain is a physical and personal voyage. It explores how the nature of our landscapes and infrastructure shape societies.

As STEM Ambassador Christopher Grubb says, civil engineers have a huge responsibility when creating infrastructure to consider a place’s history, culture, and the overall sustainability of a project.

This ensures they ‘don’t compromise tomorrow just to meet what we think our needs are today.’

4. The Bridge, Iain Banks

Image of STEM Ambassador Donald Bell
Image credit: Donald Bell

A favourite of STEM Ambassador Donald Bell, ’ The Forth Railway Bridge and Forth Road Bridge both have starring roles in this mystery.

The allusions to chief engineer Arrol refer to Sir William Arrol, while engineers Baker and Fowler are references to Sir Benjamin Baker and Sir John Fowler.

5. The Martian, Andy Weir

Astronaut Mark Watney is one of the first people to ever land on Mars.

But his death seems inevitable when disaster strikes, forcing his crew to abandon him.

Another favourite of STEM Ambassador Fergus O’ Connor, The Martian is an ingenious depiction of the real-life application of engineering, albeit in a fictional world.

There was also a thrilling film adaptation, starring Matt Damon and directed by the legendary Sir Ridley Scott.

6. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic has long asked the question: to what extent should humankind manipulate nature and the natural world?

The civil engineering industry changes lives for the better – from improving sanitation to giving us access to safe transport.

But as STEM Ambassador Fergus O’ Connor highlights, Frankenstein also asks important questions about ethics and responsibility.

These questions are vital for all engineers and scientists to ensure they are carrying out projects for the right reasons.

7. A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson

Image of STEM Ambassador Gavin Smith
Image credit: Gavin Smith

Described as ‘an adventure into the realms of human knowledge,' A Short History of Nearly Everything takes us on a tour of science and history. It starts with the Big Bang and progresses to the birth of civilization.

As STEM Ambassador Gavin Smith says, engineers can take inspiration from it as it shows how far an ‘inquiring mind’ can take you.

8. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

Image of STEM Ambassador Kevin Smith
Image credit: Kevin Smith

In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien creates a wondrous world of structures and civil engineering gems.

From the Argonath, an installation made of two enormous pillars resembling the characters Isildur and Anárion, to the epic fortress Isengard, Tolkien populates his world with designs that will spark the imaginations of civil engineers.

Engineers have even had a hand in bringing The Lord of the Rings films to life – helping build the picturesque village of Hobbiton, which you can visit in real-life!

STEM Ambassador Kevin Smith loves Tolkien’s classic so much that he continues to read or listen to it every year.

9. Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari

Image of STEM Ambassador Leon Chan
Image credit: Leon Chan

STEM Ambassador Leon Chan credits Sapiens with expanding his ‘macro thinking of the world.’

Harari’s vivid analysis of how Homo sapiens have come to rule the world is a thought-provoking exploration of the development of the species and the power of collective imagination.

10. Why Buildings Fall Down: How Structures Fail, Matthys Levy and Mario Salvadori

‘It is the destiny of the man-made environment to vanish,’ write authors Matthys Levy and Mario Salvadori.

The Pyramids are the only one of the seven wonders of the world that remain standing, but why is this?

Levy and Salvadori’s fascinating exploration of the integrity of materials tries to answer this question.

Although we might not like to think of the structures we love gradually disappearing, STEM Ambassador Lloyd Walker praises the book for igniting his interest in engineering.

11. At Bertram's Hotel, Agatha Christie

Image of STEM Ambassador Lloyd Walker
Image credit: Lloyd Walker

Murder mysteries meet civil engineering?

They might sound like an unlikely match, but Lloyd Walker also credits the mother of murder mysteries with helping revitalize the imagination, ‘setting a scene [and] thinking about…designs from another perspective.’

Christie is also known for making her readers into armchair detectives, which cultivates a great ‘eye for detail.’

12. Silver Bay, Jojo Moyes

Image of Tara Whitworth
Image credit: Tara Whitworth

Think a love story set on a fictional seaside development has no connection to civil engineering – think again!

The seaside development threatens to endanger the local wildlife.

As STEM Ambassador Tara Whitworth shares, the conflict between the hotel developer and the Whale Watcher Boat Captain is an excellent example of disputes that occur in a professional environment and exemplifies questions around development and conservation.

Want to become a STEM Ambassador?

Do you want to inspire the next generation of civil engineers? Apply to become a STEM Ambassador today.

  • Jessica Beasley, communications executive at ICE