History's Heroes: The Most Influential Civil Engineers

Shelby Rogers

As the global population continues to grow, the need for good civil engineers becomes even stronger. But who are some of the key figures who laid the foundations for future engineers? These are some of the civil engineering giants whose work we still use today.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel


Easily one of the world's most influential engineers, Brunel gets credit for building the Great Western Railway.

Brunel was born into a civil engineering family, as his French father was a successful professional. His father tutored him, and Brunel pursued a French education after his English boarding school. He joined his father in 1825 and began building a tunnel under the River Thames. He was appointed chief engineer of the Great Western Railway in 1833, and three years later also became the engineer of Great Western Steam Ship Company.

He linked London with the western part of England, and his work became known as "God's Wonderful Railway." He also developed the idea of building a tunnel underwater. In a BBC poll, Brunel garnered second place in "100 Greatest Britons."

Thomas Telford

Telford became known as the "Colossus of Roads" for his creation of some of the world's best roads. He also introduced the idea of suspension bridges. He helped form the Institution of Civil Engineers and served as its first president.

Due to strained family finances, Telford took up apprenticeship as a stonemason when he was 14. His first big break came when he managed Portsmouth dockyard and increased his knowledge on designing construction projects. He built over 40 bridges in Shropshire alone, and returned to Scotland in 1803 to build the Calenodian Canal.

Squire Whipple


Squire Whipple, a man with arguably the coolest name in American engineering, became known as the "Father of Iron Bridges in America."  He was born in 1804 to a family of farmers in Massachusetts. Whipple's father exposed him to farm equipment at an early age, and Squire became used to construction.

Whipple built the first long-span trapezoidal railroad bridge on New York Railroads. He also built a weight lock scale with a 300 ton weight capacity. That was the largest weighing device at the time and was used to weigh canal boats. The bridges he inspired, such as the Normanskill Farm Bridge, have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Most Popular

Gustave Eiffel

History's Heroes: The Most Influential Civil Engineers[Image Courtesy of Public Access/Wikipedia]

Nearly everyone knows Eiffel's legacy through his namesake Parisian tower. He began working with metal shortly after college. He initially focused on bridges and bridge design, but when the chief engineer for the Statue of Liberty died in 1879, Eiffel filled his spot. He designed Lady Liberty's skeleton which used an innovative support system to redistribute the statue's weight.

Eiffel began construction on his namesake tower in 1887 for the 1889 Universal Expo in Paris. The tower holds 12,000 different components together with 2.5 million rivets. At the time of its unveiling, Eiffel had succeeded in crafting the world's tallest structure (984 feet) in just two years.

Elmina Wilson

Wilson goes down in history as the first woman to receive a four-year degree in civil engineering. She paved the way for women to pursue civil engineering as a career, something that was seen as largely unsuitable for girls in the 19th century.

She enrolled in Iowa State University's engineering program and was supported by the dean, Anson Marston. She completed her master's degree two years later in 1894. She is the first woman to earn her masters in civil engineering as well. She became known as the "first lady of structural engineering," and she collaborated with Dean Marton to build the first raised steel tower west of the Mississippi River.

Olive Dennis

olivedennis[Image Courtesy of Wikimedia]

Olive Dennis became the first woman to join the American Railway Engineering Association. Born in 1885, Dennis was born in Pennsylvania and developed an affinity for engineering early in life. She built houses for her dolls to live in rather than play with the dolls themselves.

She refused to let gender barriers stop her from pursuing civil engineering, as employers were reluctant to hire a woman in the early 1900s. In 1920, she got a job as a draftsman in B&O Railroad's engineering department.

She worked with the railroad industry for 30 years. She invented a ventilator to allow fresh air in without a draft. She also simplified the railroad system's timetable so that passengers could better understand it.

John Bradfield

This Australian oversaw the entirety of the Sydney Harbour Bridge project.

He began his career by working for the Queensland Railways Department. He earned a Master of Engineering degree from the University of Sydney with honors in 1896. He proposed the idea of a suspension bridge in 1912. The bridge would connect Sydney and North Sydney.

Bradfield helped found the Sydney University Engineering Society in 1895. He later served as its president in 1902-1903 and 1919-1920. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is easily the greatest achievement of his life. The highway on the bridge bears his name - Bradfield Highway.

M. Visvesvaraya

M. Visvesvaraya's work left such a mark that his birthday is celebrated as National Engineers Day in India. He served as chief architect behind the Krishna Raja Sagara dam in Mandaya. That dam helped turn the arid land surrounding it into farmland.

Born near Bangalore, India, Visvesvaraya grew up in an intelligent household. He went to College of Engineering at Pune on a scholarship. He graduated and found a job with the Public Works Department of Mumbai, and that started his illustrious career redesigning arid lands to be irrigated.

He entered knighthood as the Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire in 1915. He earned independent India's highest honor, the Bharat Ratna, in 1955.

SEE ALSO: Top 10 Civil Engineering Wonders

message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron