Social engineering is obviously an old-fashioned discipline of engineering. It works with a built-in area and can be labeled for the first time when someone puts a roof over his head or puts a tree trunk across the river to make it easier to cross.
The built environment encompasses much that defines modern civilization. Buildings and bridges are often the first things that come to mind, as they are the most prominent aspects of architectural engineering, which is one of the main subjects of civil engineering. Roads, railways, subway systems and airports are built by transport engineers, another category of civil engineering. And then there are the invisible creations of civil engineers. Every time you turn on the water tap, you expect the water to come out, without thinking that the construction engineers have made it possible. New York City has one of the world’s most impressive water supply systems, receiving billions of gallons of water from Catskill more than 60 miles [100 km] away. Similarly, not many people seem to worry about what happens to the water after it has served its purposes.
The beginnings of civil engineering as a separate discipline may be seen in the foundation in France in 1716 of the Bridge and Highway Corps, out of which in 1747 grew the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées. civil engineering teachers wrote books that became standard works on the mechanics of materials, machines, and hydraulics, and leading British engineers learned French to read them. As design and calculation replaced the rule of thumb and empirical formulas, and as expert knowledge was codified and formulated, the nonmilitary engineer moved to the front of the stage. The promotion of civil engineering works may be initiated by a private client, but most work is undertaken for large corporations, government authorities, and public boards and authorities. Many of these have their own engineering staff, but for large specialized projects, it is usual to employ consulting engineers.
No major project today is initiated without thorough research of purpose and without a preliminary study of possible strategies that lead to a recommended scheme, perhaps in other ways. A feasibility study may look at the alternative to the versus tunnel bridge, in the case of a water crossing or, once the route has been determined, to choose a route. Both economic and social problems must be considered.
Since the load-bearing qualities and stability of the ground are such important factors in any large-scale construction, it is surprising that a serious study of soil mechanics did not develop until the mid-1930s. Karl von Terzaghi, the chief founder of the science, gives the date of its birth as 1936 when the First International Conference on Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering were held at Harvard University and an international society was formed. Today there are specialist societies and journals in many countries, and most universities that have a civil engineering faculty have courses in soil mechanics.
The design of engineering works may require the application of design theory from many fields—e.g., hydraulics, thermodynamics, or nuclear physics. Research in structural analysis and the technology of materials has opened the way for more rational designs, new design concepts, and a greater economy of materials. The theory of structures and the study of materials have advanced together as more and more refined stress analysis of structures and systematic testing has been done. Modern designers not only have advanced theories and readily available design data but structural designs can now be rigorously analyzed by computers.