Historically speaking, all engineering was civil engineering. Engineering was practical and based on trial and error, and seeing what worked for others. Publicly acclaimed engineers were known for great bridges, cathedrals, or military works like castles. The term ‘civil’ was added to distinguish between civilian and military engineering. The other commonly acknowledged types of engineering came along as human knowledge expanded and other specialties were necessary. For instance, mechanical engineering was unknown until the Industrial Revolution brought the wide spread use of machinery.
The chief contribution of civil engineers to the world can be summed up in one word. Infrastructure.
I’m certainly biased, but I tend to think of infrastructure as the underpinnings of the civilized world. Water supply, roads, bridges, all the utilities you take for granted…. they’re all infrastructure and they’re all key to any large scale human endeavor. You can live without it, but if you want to live well you need infrastructure.
A good infrastructure has been key to the success of many of the most powerful empires through history. The Persian system of qanats made it possible to farm semi-arid areas providing food for a big population and freeing up men to be soldiers to extend the power of the Persian Empire. Rome used its unprecedented road system to tie its far flung empire together and transport the legions which projected its power. The American interstate system gives fast access to the resources of its vast interior lands and speeds the food grown in the Midwest to the coasts making it possible to have cities like New York and Los Angeles.
Modern day engineers are responsible for making sure your life goes as smoothly as possible. Everything from making sure you have enough water pressure to take a shower, to designing the bridges you drive across to get to work, to making sure the airport runway is long enough for your plane to get in the air, to making sure the new Target being built down the street has enough parking and doesn’t flood your house when it rains.
Quite a few sub-specialties fall under the civil engineering branch, and I’m probably going to talk about a few of them over upcoming months. In the mean time, I suggest you find a civil engineer and give him a kiss (or handshake if that’s more your thing).