From Joseph Bazalgette’s invention of London’s first super sewer that wiped out cholera to life-saving actions in natural disasters.
Civil engineers have accomplished many incredible feats – from making space travel possible to designing the tallest building in the world.
But did you know they're also responsible for creating infrastructure that has saved lives?
1. London’s first super sewer, Joseph Bazalgette
In London, the summer of 1858 was like no other. Years of using night-soil collectors to remove human waste had caught up with the city, and rivers, including the River Fleet, River Tyburn and even the Thames, had become little more than open sewers themselves.
As the ‘Great Stink’ descended on London, water-borne diseases, including cholera and typhoid, threatened to overwhelm the population. In 1853, the cholera endemic had claimed the lives of more than 10,000 Londoners – and with little attention paid to the appalling state of the Thames, this didn’t look set to change.
A few years earlier, scientist Michael Faraday had warned the UK government of the dangers of inaction. Faraday took a walk along the Thames, dropping bits of paper to check visibility: ‘Near the bridges the feculence rolled up in clouds so dense that they were visible at the surface… the whole river was for the time a real sewer.’
By 1858, The Big Stink was more than an assault on the senses: it was a public health crisis.
Building London's sewers
Joseph Bazalgette, the chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, was drafted in to design a new sewerage system to meet the demands of London’s growing population. It was an unforgettable feat of engineering, with 82 miles of brick-lined intercepting sewers and 1,100 miles of street sewers. The sewerage system was contained within several embankments, including the Victoria Embankment.
Although many people were involved in the construction and engineering of London’s first sewerage system, Bazalgette was hands-on every step of the way. He reviewed hundreds of proposals to find the ideal design.
Of course, no method is entirely futureproof. Still, Bazalgette’s insistence on using more extensive tunnels and the durable Portland cement, meant that the Victorian sewerage system could accommodate the growth in London’s population.
Bazalgette’s ingenious solution to London’s sanitation problem not only solved a practical issue but is also an example of how infrastructure is capable of quite literally saving lives.
2. Cordouan Lighthouse, Louis de Foix
Lighthouses have been saving lives since 280 BC, but they haven’t always taken the form that we recognise them by today.
Traditionally, their source of light came from gigantic fires built on hilltops. The Cordouan, or the ‘Patriarch of Lighthouses,’ situated at the mouth of the Gironde estuary in France, has a rich and complex engineering history.
It was first designed by French architect and engineer Louis de Foix towards the end of the 16th century, at the request of King Henry III of France.
At the time of its construction, it was regarded as a Renaissance masterpiece, often referred to as the ‘Versailles of the Sea’ – an amalgamation of a royal palace, cathedral, and fort. Therefore, it was just as representative of royal power as it was a practical piece of infrastructure with a life-saving purpose.
Parabolic lamps were first installed in 1782, but engineer Joseph Teulère was instrumental in remodelling its design, ultimately raising The Cordouan 60 metres above the highest tide. He went on to engineer the first turning light dish.
The most significant breakthrough came in the 19th century when civil engineer and physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel invented the first Fresnel lens rotating system.
Called ‘the invention that saved a million ships’, Fresnel lenses work by concentrating the light rays into a blazing beam that can be seen up to 20 miles away. The Cordouan was the first lighthouse to have a Fresnel lens installed.
Since Fresnel’s invention, The Cordouan has undergone changes to its power supply, with the light first being converted to petroleum gas and later electricity before coming fully automated. This year, it was recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, and to this day, it keeps a watchful eye over the ocean’s many inhabitants.
3. Bailey bridges, Donald Bailey
Designed by civil engineer and Yorkshireman Donald Bailey, Bailey bridges became an unlikely hero in World War II. The genius of these truss bridges is in the simplicity of their design.
In addition to being portable and light, the bridges could be built by soldiers in under 24 hours, with little need for the use of heavy equipment. If required elsewhere, they could be dissembled quickly before being re-deployed.
The Bailey bridges boast several impressive strengths. The Royal Canadian Engineers of the Second Corps built the largest Bailey bridge, dubbed the ‘Black Friars bridge’ over the Rhine.
The floating section of the bridge was given a Military Load Class 40 rating, meaning that tanks as heavy as 40 tons could safely pass over the bridge. Throughout the war, an incredible 70,000 panels were manufactured and assembled into Bailey bridges – that’s long enough to stretch from London to Saint Petersburg, Russia!
What is even more impressive is that the Bailey bridge’s legacy did not end with the war. They are still regularly used today for humanitarian purposes and as a mitigating measure in natural disasters – and they continue to save lives.
In Mali, West Africa, between 20 and 40 people were dying each year while crossing the Bakoye river by canoe or boat. By building Bailey bridges, individuals could avoid the treacherous route. Consequently, many lives have been saved.
Famous examples of the Bailey bridge today include the Mabey Compact C200 and the Mabey Logistic Support Bridge.
In 2007, the British government also deployed 30 C200s to Kashmir, Pakistan, to assist in aid efforts after an earthquake devastated the region and its local people, demonstrating that Bailey’s legacy is still alive today.
The movie buffs among you might also have spotted a Bailey bridge in the epic war film, A Bridge Too Far (1977).
4. Mitigating natural disasters
Natural disasters, from earthquakes to tsunamis, can wreak havoc on the environment, communities, housing, and people’s lives.
Joshua Macabuag is a disaster-risk engineer, whose role involves modelling building damage caused by natural disasters. Joshua was recently a keynote speaker at the 14th Brunel International Lecture series, where he spoke about the disaster management cycle, and the roles engineers play at each stage.
Analysis of buildings, both pre-and post-disaster, is vital to reducing the likelihood of catastrophes.
Just as importantly, modelling building damage post-disaster provides essential lessons that will help prevent future tragedies.
Joshua also volunteers at Search and Rescue Assistance in Disasters (SARAID), where he uses his knowledge of civil engineering to locate and remove people trapped in collapsed buildings.
Beyond search and rescue, civil engineers also help mitigate the devastating impact of natural disasters on populations by providing access to sanitation systems, including sewerage and water, building humanitarian shelters for victims of natural disasters, and planning safe evacuation routes.
5. Building life-saving hospitals
We all know that emergency services are critical to public health and wellbeing, but do you ever think about the people who have helped build hospitals and emergency units around the country?
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the Military Assessment Team for 170 (Infrastructure Support) Engineer Group provided a rapid response, helping build the Nightingale Hospitals in just a few weeks.
Major Angela Laycock and her colleagues played a pivotal role in the nationwide rollout of the Nightingale hospitals becoming a reality.
They were able to assess the locations for site suitability, while Angela used her background in civil engineering to provide technical expertise on construction.
The result was time saved, which is a priority in any emergency.
When Ninewells Hospital opened its doors in 1974, it was the first new teaching hospital built in the UK since the 19th century.
Since its inauguration, Ninewells has become the leading medical centre in Dundee, introducing keyhole surgery and leading in cancer management and robotic surgery.
Built by architects Robert Matthew Johnson-Marshall and partners (RMJM), the hospital has a therapeutic and community garden, which gives inpatients access to outdoor space.
Outdoor space and greenery can increase mental wellbeing, which is particularly important for those facing the challenges posed by illness.
As a teaching hospital, Ninewells is at the forefront of providing specialised research and teaching that enhances patients' care.
The first in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) baby in Scotland was also born in Ninewells, so it’s a hospital that’s helped bring lives into the world, as well as saving them.