The Victorian Era: mother and father of engineering

Victoria ascended the English throne in 1837, and her reign became known as the golden age of the empire. Victorian times saw extraordinary achievements in the disciplines of  engineering and technology by some of the greatest pioneers in these fields. The major canal, railway, and waterworks projects of the first half of the nineteenth century created a principled reputation for engineering which still rings true today.

The development of engineering drew on the early successes of the 1700s by engineers who were considered a ‘motley lot’ of skilled artisans, mechanics, smiths, molders, and millwrights. But by the turn of the century however, civil engineering had become a recognised profession, following the paths of other professions in the nineteenth century by establishing a formal association in 1818, the Institution for Civil Engineers. This regulated membership, tightened apprenticeship rules and examination standards.

Engineering came into its own in Victoria’s era for several reasons

Steam technology:

  • During the reign of Queen Victoria, Britain expanded its influence and became the most powerful trading nation in the world. The industrial revolution built a firm foundation for growth and expansion. And at the heart of this was the successful development of steam technology.
  • Two brilliant engineers, James Watt and Matthew Boulton were the founders of this technology and their steam power inventions radically improved the mining of coal, minerals and other raw materials for the production of iron, textiles and various manufactured goods. These advanced technologies enabled Britain to take the lead in rapidly expanding international markets. Exports grew through trade to India, Europe, Asia and the United States.

Communication technology:

  • Right at the beginning of Victoria’s reign, Britain was already on the threshold of greatness; the country’s standing as a global industrial and trading power was already unrivalled. However, the real power came through the development of communication technology.
  • Three areas of innovation and invention led to the Victorian era taking centre stage in the world during the nineteenth century: steam technology; the development of the railway; and the brilliant electric telegraph.

Great achievements

The Sewer system: This is considered one of the greatest achievements of the Victorian age. The city of London was plagued by numerous diseases in the absence of a proper system for sewage disposal. To control this, Joseph Bazelgatte envisaged the creation of 82 miles of sewage super highways over 1000 miles of street sewers. He designed the London embankment to house sewer and water pipes, and the yet-to-be underground rail systems. Bazelgatte was an engineer par excellence, and the sewer systems which opened in 1858 set the benchmark for sewage disposal the world over, used even today in other great modern cities like Singapore and Hong Kong, etc.

Iron and Steel: An invention by engineer Bessenmer led to the process which enabled the generation of industrial steel from pig iron on a large scale for the first time. And it was this steel that became the foundation of buildings and machinery that so mark the Victorian era – the very ‘infernal machines’ that drove the industry into an unassailable lead worldwide.

Telecommunications: One of the most remarkable achievements of the age was the invention and laying of telegraph cables throughout Britain and the colonies, facilitating instant communication. The crowning achievement was the laying of the Transatlantic cable from London to New York, with Queen Victoria throwing the switch herself in 1858.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

With such an illustrious name, one would have to become famous. However, it was not his name that drew his fame; an engineer and unique pioneer, Brunel’s achievements include railways, bridges, steam ships, and tunnels, among numerous others. Here are just a few examples of one man’s engineering ingenuity:

  • Thames Tunnel: Brunel began his career by assisting his father during the making of the famous Thames tunnel. Completed in the 1840s, the tunnel was the first of its kind, built under a navigable river still in use.
  • Maidenhead Railway Bridge: The famous Maidenhead Railway Bridge over the river Thames in Berkshire, was opened in 1838. At its time it was the flattest, widest, “brick arch” bridge in the world.
  • Clifton Suspension Bridge: Brunel is also attributed with the design of the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol over the river Avon, which was the world’s longest suspension bridge at the time of conception. The work on this bridge began in 1862 and was completed in 1864.
  • Great Western Railway: One of Brunel’s greatest achievements is the creation of the Great Western Railway which extended from London to Bristol and was later extended to Exeter. Here, for the first time, Brunel advocated the use of Broad Gauge Tracks measuring 7 feet ¼ inch for increased carrying capacity and increased passenger comfort.
  • The Great Britain, an iron-hulled propeller-driven ship: In 1843, Brunel created the famous ship, Great Britain, a 322 feet behemoth. It was the world’s first iron-hulled, propeller-driven ship to cross the Atlantic.

Engineering during the 1800s achieved a level of innovation and vision that has impacted indelibly on our current day lifestyles – achievements that will continue to influence and resonate throughout our as yet unimagined future.

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