I’m reading a biography of the 19th Century Scottish engineer William Fairbairn. It has been very well researched with hundreds of references to primary and secondary materials. Personally, I find it a fascinating read, but I could imagine it doesn’t appeal to many. Too technical and detailed they might say.
That’s where the challenge comes along to those who would like to spread the lessons from historical biography. These are case studies of significant individuals who have clearly made a difference to an area, a sector, a technology, a community, a nation, a world etc.
As Roma Agrawal has shown with her book BUILT, people are interested in stories about other people. This allows us to entice them in the direction of more scientific and technical issues which have traditionally scared them away.
Even though William Fairbairn didn’t have a proper education, he learned by doing and by reading voraciously in his little spare time. He was driven by a bigger purpose than making money for himself and his family. He wanted to change society for the better. This is surely a reason for knowing a little more about him and his personal and physical achievements.
I often use the term ‘built environment’ to encompass a knowledge and skills sector that covers civil and structural engineering, architecture, construction, building services, surveying and other related disciplines.
This is an important sector for the world economy because without it we wouldn’t have much of the infrastructure we rely on in a civilised culture. It may also help us build the platform for expansion of humanity off the planet, an increasingly important issue given the ongoing risks to us of global warming, population increase and religious/cultural intolerance. These all mirror previous reasons for exodus if we look back at mass migrations of the past.
But ‘BUILT’ is also the title of Roma Agrawal’s first book which is reaching out to broad audiences with stories about building structures. For example, she describes the biological origins of bridge-building by looking at the amazing Darwin’s bark spider which can shoot 25 meter silk lines across rivers. Roma posits that perhaps one day humans will be able to do the same on a much larger scale with innovative new materials.
So the BUILT environment is a play on words.
It tries to capture the fact that we need to create a wide community of interest in the value of designing and making structures, particularly in those largely Western countries where this basic skill set has been superseded by the ability to argue a highly technical legal case before a judge, or undertake intricate surgery to keep bodies functioning longer than they might naturally be designed to do.
This is not to undermine those professions, but perhaps to re-balance things back to where they used to be in ages gone by. Hence the Year of Engineering in the UK this year and the associated longer term ‘This is Engineering’ campaign. Not to forget the Institution of Civil Engineering’s 200th Anniversary in 2018 which includes celebrating 200 great global civil engineering related accomplishments during the course of the year. One of those added to the list is the foundation of the British Standards Institution (BSI) in 1901 by Sir John Wolfe Barry, more about which can be read on this website.
The Victorians were huge achievers on a global scale.
Amongst the many contributors to this process were civil engineers such as Telford, Brunel, Hawkshaw, Fowler, Baker and Wolfe Barry.
I attended a wonderful book launch this week for Roma Agrawal’s new book BUILT during which she kindly signed my copy. The occasion was hosted at the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe on the site of the first traffic tunnel under a navigable waterway, the River Thames. The civil engineers responsible were Marc and Isambard Brunel, father and son. As I’ve posted elsewhere on this site, Isambard’s son Henry became a close business partner of John Wolfe Barry.
The final chapter of Roma’s book is called ‘Dream’. Everyone dreams, literally, but not so many actually achieve them in real life. Roma managed to write her book which started as a spreadsheet and she’d previously designed key structural parts of the Shard, an architect’s dream come true.
Young people ever since Victorian times (and before) have wanted to fulfil their dreams. Civil and structural engineering is one very visible way of doing this – not just a small, invisible component of a household object, but a big, visible, in-your-face statement of how conceptual design can change the world physically for the better.
Where there was no hospital there now is one to treat the sick, where no bridge now one stands to cross a river.
Communities can flourish and in turn have an influence on their environment, gradually ensuring that it reflects shared ideals and aspirations, including beauty, sustainability and using an ethical approach.
John Wolfe Barry would have been happy with such an outcome.
Roma Agrawal is publishing her book ‘Built: the Hidden Stories Behind our Structures’ on 8 February.
I’m fortunate to know Roma and we share common interests in opening up (structural) engineering to a wider base, particularly getting more females into a profession traditionally dominated by men.
One of the stories Roma writes about in her book is on the Quebec Bridge in Canada. It’s a bridge I don’t know too well so I decided to find out more using my favourite search tool, Google of course! This brought up the Wikipedia reference used in the above hyperlink. If you want to delve further you can connect to other steel cantilever bridges around the world including the Connel (Ferry) Bridge by Sir John Wolfe Barry, and the most famous example of all, the Forth Railway Bridge built by John Fowler and Benjamin Baker (a close friend and business partner of Wolfe Barry).
But what is so special about the Quebec Bridge?
It is a world record holder as the longest spanning cantilever bridge ever built – this was to prove the downfall of the first version of the bridge which collapsed during construction on 29 August 1907 with the loss of many lives. Roma will tell you more in her book.
Famous bridges aren’t the only structures to have stories behind them. The building you live in may have more than one stor(e)y. Perhaps not as exciting or indeed tragic as the Quebec Bridge …
It’s sixteen days until the 22 January when we commemorate the centenary of Sir John Wolfe Barry’s death.
In a small gesture I will visit his window in Westminster Abbey which looks down on the grave of his father, Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Palace of Westminster.
Sir John himself was buried in Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, Surrey. I once tried to find his grave but failed so will have another go, even though the cemetery’s website doesn’t list it at all. I hope it’s not been removed!
ICE’s bicentenary celebrations have kicked off as has the Year of Engineering. Roma Agrawal, a chartered structural engineer, is launching her new book BUILT in early February and we’re just waiting to hear about the launch of ‘This is Engineering’, a campaign to promote the engineering profession to wider audiences of young people and their parents. I’m also hoping for a Blue Plaque on the house where Sir John died in Chelsea.
If after all this activity you still can’t work out why engineering and construction are important sectors of the global economy, which require an ongoing supply of diverse, creative and pragmatic new talent, then perhaps we will all have failed!
The author of this website about Sir John Wolfe Barry was Nick von Behr. I am indebted particularly to research and writing by the late James Sutherland. There is a more recent website about Wolfe Barry, Tower Bridge and other structures.
I populated this website with content in time for 22 January 2018, the centenary of John Wolfe Barry’s death. 2018 was the official UK Year of Engineering and the bicentenary of the Institution of Civil Engineers and the year structural engineer Roma Agrawal published her amazing book ‘Built’.
Originally I wanted to have some kind of commemoration in Westminster Abbey where a window can be found in his honour and his father is interred. More concretely, an English Heritage Blue Plaque was put up on the house where he died in London. This was a slow burner, having applied in December 2015, but it finally happened in 2019 coinciding with the 125th anniversary of the opening of Tower Bridge.
I have written a book called ‘Building Passions‘ about the 19th-century Brunel and Barry families of architects and civil engineers. Much of the material derives from this website and the research behind it.