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Geotechnical Engineers

History

Geotechnical engineering is a discipline of civil engineering, the oldest engineering discipline after military engineering. Though the title did not exist around 2700 B.C., the builders of the pyramids in Egypt could be considered early civil engineers. Other ancient civil engineering achievements include the Parthenon, built in Greece in the fifth century; the 4,000-mile Great Wall of China, built and rebuilt multiple times from the fifth century B.C. through the 1600s; and the Romans' aqueducts, harbors, waterways, dams, and roadways, which were used as early as the seventh century B.C.

It wasn't until the 18th century that civil engineering was distinguished as a discipline separate from military engineering. John Smeaton, a British engineer and physicist, was the first self-proclaimed civil engineer. In the 1750s, he designed the third Eddystone Lighthouse, an especially challenging project because the lighthouse is set on treacherous rocks in Devon, England. Using what today might be considered geotechnical engineering, Smeaton explored types of materials that would set under water for the foundation of the lighthouse, and discovered that hydraulic lime worked best. This discovery was used as the basis for the later development of cement. Because of Smeaton's design and choice of materials, the Eddystone Lighthouse withstood the elements for 100 years.

Civil engineering was officially recognized as a profession in 1828, with a Royal Charter by the Institution of Civil Engineers (founded in 1818, in London). The formal definition was given as follows:

"…the art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man, as the means of production and of traffic in states, both for external and internal trade, as applied in the construction of roads, bridges, aqueducts, canals, river navigation and docks for internal intercourse and exchange, and in the construction of ports, harbours, moles, breakwaters and lighthouses, and in the art of navigation by artificial power for the purposes of commerce, and in the construction and application of machinery, and in the drainage of cities and towns."

In 1819, Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont, was the first private college in America to offer classes in civil engineering. In 1835, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute became the first U.S. school to award a civil engineering degree. And in 1905, Nora Stanton Blatch, a Cornell University student, was the first woman to receive a degree in civil engineering.

Engineering has grown since the 20th century to encompass multiple disciplines and specialties, many of which are now needed to address national infrastructure issues and global environmental concerns. Today, civil engineering, geotechnical engineering, and other engineering degree programs are offered at schools throughout the country and around the world.

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