Is it possible to be too creative in engineering?

The quick answer to the question in the title of this blog is yes.

The longer answer is yes, but in many cases it’s a risk worth taking.

I’ve been reading about a modern day Brunel who has taken huge risks to push the boundaries of engineering. He has launched his own radical space business to achieve his goal of getting humanity to Mars. This is as big a creative vision as any Brunel or Jobs. And unlike them he’s committed significant amounts of his own money in the enterprise. Why?

Because he believed that his creative vision wouldn’t be achieved unless he took the full burden of financial investment on his shoulders at least in the early stages. He also has the technical confidence to back this. Finally he pushes his employees to come up with creative engineering solutions to his problems by asking for impossible deadlines against very tight budgets. If they succeed they get due acknowledgement for their efforts.

If you don’t know his name by now then let me enlighten you. He is Elon Musk. It would be great to have a female version of him and his predecessors in due course as engineering is still a very male dominated environment.

Who was the first architect to design a bridge?

This year is the bicentenary of the founding of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1818. It is also 100 years since Sir John Wolfe Barry died. Next year we will celebrate 125 years since he completed Tower Bridge in 1894.

Wolfe Barry was President of the ‘Civils’ and in this role keen to ensure that young civil engineers were given the right training to design and build bridges. At that time architects were less involved in the design process for bridges but this was changing.

Was Sir John qualified to design and build Tower Bridge?

Yes, in terms of producing the right physical structure and having the general engineering skills needed to start and finish the project successfully. His drawing skills were also good, no doubt boosted by the family specialism in architecture. However, the original designs for the bridge were not his. They belonged to Sir Horace Jones, the Corporation of London’s architect. Wolfe Barry was consulted by Jones on the engineering practicalities and provided evidence to Parliament on these, which may well have been a deciding factor in getting construction approval. Jones died soon after building began, but was succeeded by his architectural assistant George Stevenson.

John Wolfe Barry’s business partner Henry Brunel was also involved in the design and build process for Tower Bridge. His father IK Brunel had designed and part-built Clifton Suspension Bridge until the money ran out and was also responsible for the aesthetically pleasing railway bridge across the Thames at Maidenhead.

So my question to Twitterati (see @behroutcomes) which became the title of this post was designed to explore the early relationship between architects and engineers in bridge-building. Names that have come up include Vitruvius, Appollodorus, Li Chun and Palladio. Let’s see who else appears …

Who are the modern day Brunels and Wolfe Barry’s?

Architecture has its modern day heroes such as Enzo Piano or Norman Foster or the late Zaha Hadid.

Civil and structural engineers are less well known nowadays compared to the legends of the past.

What has happened?

I would venture to suggest that people are more impressed nowadays by creativity and aesthetics than by downright structural solidity.

Is this fair?

No, but then it’s not fair that medicine attracts huge numbers of applicants and quite happily rejects large percentages of them in the upper echelons. No shame in not making the cut, you can always try another profession (by implication, easier).

I hope very much that this bias will change over time. I don’t believe it helps any profession. It’s not the obvious that matters, rather the less well perceived.

However beautiful a skyscraper or a bridge, what we need to be sure of is that they will last serving a good purpose. They won’t if they collapse or if they produce more problems than solutions for the communities in which they are built.

Civil engineering inspiration since the Victorian Age

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.


Commemorating 22 January 1918 #sirjohnwolfebarry

Monday 22 January 2018 marks exactly 100 years since the death of Sir John Wolfe Barry, the man who built Tower Bridge, London. He died peacefully at his home in Chelsea at the venerable age of 81.

His lifetime is commemorated on this website, the culmination of a project that started many years ago. It is also commemorated on a window in Westminster Abbey, below which lies the tomb of his famous father the architect of the Houses of Parliament.

At the time of his death Sir John had achieved many things in addition to building Tower Bridge between 1886 and 1894. He had been President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in the 1890s, a famous organisation celebrating its bicentenary this year. He was credited with founding the Engineering Standards Committee at the turn of the 20th Century, which eventually became the British Standards Institution, home of the Kitemark. He was pivotal in helping to establish the National Physical Laboratory at around the same time.

Less well-known about him was the fact that he chaired the Board of the telegraph companies which were eventually to become Cable & Wireless. His close business partner for many decades was Henry Brunel, younger son of Isambard K Brunel. Sir John took over the lease of the Brunels’ house in Westminster, London and made it his own family home before he moved on to Chelsea.

Finally, Sir John’s civil engineering consultancy eventually became part of the same company which helped build the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, at the time of writing the world’s tallest building.


Brunels versus Barrys: a generation game

Isambard Kingdom Brunel is probably the most famous engineer in history and arguably one of Britain’s best recognised heroes. Certainly he had the advantage of an equally talented engineer father, with whom he worked closely from a young age.

By contrast, Sir Charles Barry, who was Brunel’s near contemporary, came from a less auspicious background. His projects were technically less challenging and he sought consensus rather than individual distinction.

Sir Charles’ sons achieved successful careers as architects, a senior clergyman and a civil engineer. Isambard’s eldest son became a lawyer and his youngest son Henry was a ‘junior’ partner to Sir John Wolfe Barry, in the sense that he relied on John’s moral and financial support for many years.

While the Brunel name of engineers died out with Henry after only two generations, the (Wolfe) Barry’s continued in civil engineering well into the 20th Century.

Different families make their mark on society in different ways.

#ICE200 was Brunel a superhero?

The Institution of Civil Engineers is celebrating its bicentenary this year under the label ICE 200. One aspect of the celebrations is a theme called ‘Invisible Superheroes’, a year long exhibition focusing on the civil engineers behind a range of historical and current projects.

Isambard K Brunel was certainly my hero, if not one with supernatural powers called  ‘Captain Innovation’ by ICE. I first came across him when I started an undergrad degree at Bristol University. Everyone in the city knew about him as the man who had built the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge. It turns out that he didn’t complete it himself, but come on, superheroes are busy people!

Brunel was also responsible for constructing the first regular steam travel system between the UK and the USA. Under the ‘Great Western’ brand, travellers could catch a train from Paddington Station in London, disembark at Bristol and join the Great Western steamship for its 16 day trip across the Atlantic. A new museum called ‘Being Brunel’ is opening in Bristol in a few months time.

A number of years after I graduated I came back to the West of England to study a Masters in Social Research at Bath University supervised by Professor Angus Buchanan, one of the leading academics on Brunel. As mentioned elsewhere this research introduced me to Sir John Wolfe Barry who was a close business partner of Henry Brunel, IK’s civil engineer son.

The (locomotive) wheel had come full circle!