Civil engineering is a professional engineering discipline that deals with the design, construction and maintenance of the physical and natural built environment, including works such as bridges, roads, canals, dams and buildings.
Civil engineering is the oldest engineering discipline after military engineering, and it was defined to distinguish it from military engineering. It is traditionally broken into several sub-disciplines including: municipal engineering, environmental engineering, geotechnical engineering, structural engineering, transportation engineering, water resources engineering, materials engineering, coastal engineering, surveying, and construction engineering.
From the pyramids of Egypt to the exploration of space, civil engineers have always faced the challenges of the future - advancing civilization and building our quality of life.
Today, the world is undergoing vast changes - the technological revolution, population growth, environmental concerns, and more. All create unique challenges for civil engineers. The next decades will be the most creative, demanding, and rewarding times for civil engineers, and now is the best time to find out if civil engineering is the right career for you.
Throughout history, civil engineers have designed and built facilities that have advanced civilization and have provided for a higher standard of living. Just some examples:
Building the Pyramids: Around 2980 B.C., thousands of workers labored for years to build the pyramids as tombs for kings. The end results continue to endure and amaze.
The Glory of Ancient Rome: The Coliseum is a find example of ancient Roman architectural engineering which was used for gladiatorial games and was even flooded for mock navy battles. It measured approximately 280 by 175 feet and featured four floors, with an overall capacity to accommodate 87,000 people.
The Symbol of London: The majestic Tower Bridge is an iron drawbridge that spans the River Thames. It was completed in 1894, and has two central sections that can be raised to allow large ships to pass.
French Civil Engineering Genius: The French contributed a great deal to the progress of this profession. One of the most innovative civil engineers of all time was Alexander Gustave Eiffel, best known for his ingenious design of the Eiffel Tower. He also designed the support structure of the Statue of Liberty in the USA.
A Shortcut Between East and West: The Panama Canal, one of the greatest engineering achievements in the world, links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to shorten a ship's voyage between New York and California.
A Modern Civil Engineering Wonder: The Hoover Dam in the USA was completed in 1935 and continues to generate unparalleled benefits to the nation through regulation of the Colorado River for water conservation, power production, flood control, recreation, and fish and wildlife enhancement.
Crossing San Francisco Bay: The Golden Gate Bridge in the USA, designed by Joseph Strauss and Charles Ellis, was placed in service in 1937 and was the longest single span (4,200 feet) bridge in the world at the time. It remains today as an international symbol of civil engineering innovation.
Engineering has been an aspect of life since the beginnings of human existence. Civil engineering might be considered properly commencing between 4000 and 2000 BC in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia when humans started to abandon a nomadic existence, thus causing a need for the construction of shelter.
During this time, transportation became increasingly important leading to the development of the wheel and sailing. The construction of Pyramids in Egypt (circa 2700-2500 BC) might be considered the first instances of large structure constructions. Other ancient historic civil engineering constructions include the Parthenon by Iktinos in Ancient Greece (447-438 BC), the Appian Way by Roman engineers (c. 312 BC), and the Great Wall of China by General Meng T'ien under orders from Ch'in Emperor Shih Huang Ti (c. 220 BC).
Until modern times there was no clear distinction between civil engineering and architecture, and the term engineer and architect were mainly geographical variations referring to the same person, often used interchangeably. In the 18th century, the term civil engineering began to be used to and exchange, and in the construction of ports, harbours, moles, breakwaters and lighthouses, and in the art of distinguish it from military engineering.
The first self-proclaimed civil engineer was John Smeaton who constructed the Eddystone Lighthouse. In 1771 Smeaton and some of his colleagues formed the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers, a group of leaders of the profession who met informally over dinner. Though there was evidence of some technical meetings, it was little more than a social society.
In 1818 the Institution of Civil Engineers was founded in London, and in 1820 the eminent engineer Thomas Telford became its first president. The institution received a Royal Charter in 1828, formally recognizing civil engineering as a profession. Its charter defined civil engineering as:
"...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 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."
Construction Engineering: As a construction engineer, you will be a builder of our future. The construction phase of a project represents the first tangible result of a design. Using your technical and management skills, you will help turn designs into reality -- on time and within budget. You will apply your knowledge of construction methods and equipment, along with principles of financing, planning, and managing, to turn the designs of other engineers into successful facilities.
Environmental Engineering: The skills of environmental engineers are becoming increasingly important as we attempt to protect the fragile resources of our planet. Environmental engineers translate physical, chemical, and biological processes into systems to destroy toxic substances, remove pollutants from water, reduce non-hazardous solid waste volumes, eliminate contaminants from the air, and develop groundwater supplies. In this field, you might be called upon to resolve problems of providing safe drinking water, cleaning up sites contaminated with hazardous materials, cleaning up and preventing air pollution, treating wastewater, and managing solid wastes.
Geotechnical Engineering: Almost all of the facilities that make up our infrastructure are in, on, or with earth materials, and geotechnical engineering is the discipline that deals with applications of technology to solve these problems. Examples of facilities in the earth are tunnels, deep foundations, and pipelines. Highway pavements and many buildings are supported on the earth. And earth dams, levees, embankments, and slopes are constructed with the earth. In addition, many soil-like waste materials are deposited in containment areas. To design these facilities, geotechnical engineers must conduct analyses based on the principles of mechanics and mathematics. These analyses require input data to quantify the properties of the earth materials, and this information is usually obtained from laboratory or field tests.
Structural Engineering: As a structural engineer, you will face the challenge of analyzing and designing structures to ensure that they safely perform their purpose. They must support their own weight and resist dynamic environmental loads such as hurricanes, earthquakes, blizzards, and floods. Stadiums, arenas, skyscrapers, offshore oil structures, space platforms, amusement park rides, bridges, office buildings, and homes are a few of the many types of projects in which structural engineers are involved. You will develop and utilize knowledge of the properties and behaviors of steel, concrete, aluminum, timber, and plastic as well as new and exotic materials. To make certain that the plans are being followed, you will often be on the construction site inspecting and verifying the work.
Transportation Engineering: Because the quality of a community is directly related to the quality of its transportation system, your function as a transportation engineer will be to move people, goods, and materials safely and efficiently. Your challenge will be to find ways to meet the increasing travel needs on land, air and sea. You will design, construct, and maintain all types of facilities, including highways, railroads, airfields, and ports. An important part of transportation engineering is to upgrade our transportation capability by improving traffic control and mass transit systems, and by introducing high-speed trains, people movers, and other new transportation methods.
Urban Planning: As a professional in this area, you will be concerned with the full development of a community. Analyzing a variety of information will help you coordinate projects, such as projecting street patterns, identifying park and recreation areas, and determining areas for industrial and residential growth. To ensure ready access to your community, coordination with other authorities may be required to integrate freeways, airports, and other related facilities. Successful coordination of a project will require you to be people-oriented as well as technically knowledgeable.
Water Resources: Water is essential to our lives, and as a water resources engineer, you will deal with issues concerning the quality and quantity of water. You will work to prevent floods, to supply water for cities, industry and irrigation, to treat wastewater, to protect beaches, or to manage and redirect rivers. You might be involved in the design, construction, or maintenance of hydroelectric power facilities, canals, dams, pipelines, pumping stations, locks, or seaport facilities.