Nora Stanton Barney

8 Ground Breaking Civil Engineers of the 20th Century

A look into the history of the civil engineering discipline reveals interesting facts on how many of our modern structural and architectural marvels became possible. The industry’s past can also provide insight into the individuals that helped develop these structures, as well as the social issues they had to overcome to advance the civil engineering industry. To celebrate some of these individuals, highlighted below are eight groundbreaking civil engineers of the 20th century.

Nora Stanton Barney

Nora Stanton Barney, born in 1883, was the granddaughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Barney is known as the first woman accepted into the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) as a junior member, upon attaining her civil engineering degree from Cornell University in 1905. Barney is also recognized for her contributions to the New York Board of Water Supply. Her work with the New York Board of Water Supply included drafting plans for early developments of the water supply system in Catskill, New York. Many credit her with the design of weirs and dams in the Ashokan Reservoir — one of the water supply sources for New York City — and the Catskill Aqueduct, which still sends roughly 400 gallons of water to the Ashokan Reservoir each day.

Tung-Yen Lin

Tung-Yen Lin is considered by many to be the father of pre-stressed concrete and co-authored the book, Design of Pre-stressed Concrete Structures. His work with pre-stressed design led to improved material efficiency and capacity of concrete structures, including high-rises, bridges, dams, and other concrete-based structures. He was born in China in 1912 and would later attain a master’s degree in civil engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. Lin spent much of his career working for the Chinese Ministry of Railways on designs for multiple bridges in China, including the high-speed Chengdu-Chongqing Intercity Railway in Southwest China. Lin is also recognized for a number of projects, including Carasca, Venezuela’s National Racetrack, and the Moscone Convention Center, the largest expo venue in San Francisco. In 2000, the National Engineering Society awarded Lin with the Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the field of civil engineering.

Elsie Eaves

Elsie Eaves was born in Colorado in 1898 and attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she earned a civil engineering degree in 1920. Eaves would become the first woman to be promoted to the status of a full associate member in the American Society of Civil Engineers. Around 1927, Eaves began working for the Engineering News-Record (ENR), a magazine devoted to reporting market news in the construction industry. In this capacity, she led the ENR’s work on the economic assessment of construction planning projects in the post-war climate. Most noteworthy of her contributions in this position is the market survey data Eaves collected and the measurements she created to analyze that data. Eaves compiled her market research into the first continuous database in the construction industry, and her analysis of cost trends for building materials and other construction costs were later adopted as construction industry standards by the U.S. government.

Eugene C. Figg

Eugene C. Figg, perhaps most noted for his attention to aesthetics in construction, was one of the key developers of post-tensioned segmental concrete designs. Figg founded the Figg Engineering Group in the late 1970s, and his firm quickly became the leading designer of segmental concrete bridges in the U.S. Under his direction, the company designed the Natchez Trace Parkway, the first segmental concrete bridge, in 1994. Figg himself designed bridges exclusively and completed numerous projects in Florida, including the Sunshine Skyway Bridge (Tampa Bay) and the Broadway Bridge (Daytona Beach), as well as a long list of other bridges around the country. Since Figg’s death in 2002, his company has continued to be a leader in innovative segmental bridge design. In 2010, the group completed the Alleghany River Bridge near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a project built on the concepts of economic efficiency and preservation of the Alleghany River and the surrounding environment.

Fazlur R. Khan

Fazlur Khan was an American structural engineer born in 1929 in what is now Bangladesh. Khan’s engineering designs pioneered the structural groundwork for building modern skyscrapers to greater heights. After earning a B.A. in Civil Engineering in India, Khan studied at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Here, he attained two master degrees, as well as a Ph.D. in Structural Engineering. Khan’s breakthrough innovation was the tubular structure concept, which revolutionized the design potential for tall buildings, as it allowed them to better withstand environmental forces like wind and earthquakes. Using this new concept, companies could construct taller buildings that were stronger, more flexible, and used less material than the traditional methods. Khan is most recognized as the designer of the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Center in Chicago, Illinois, and he was also one of the first architects to employ computer-aided design.

Alan Muir Wood

Alan Muir Wood was a British engineer whose contributions greatly impacted the field of geotechnical engineering. Wood’s conceptual developments improved the overall process of construction by utilizing his observational design approach. Through this method, engineers closely monitored the impact of construction on the soil and other landscape features before making adjustments accordingly. Much of Wood’s efforts focused on the prevention of soil erosion, and, as a result, he is often considered a pioneer of sustainable design in the geotechnical engineering sphere. Wood’s expertise led to the successful development of several large tunnel projects in different parts of the world, including the Orange-Fish River Tunnel in South Africa, which is currently the world’s longest water supply tunnel. His other work in tunnel design includes the Channel Tunnel in the United Kingdom, which facilitates the transport of high-speed passenger trains, and the Heathrow Cargo Tunnel, which transports cargo and passengers between terminals at the Heathrow Airport in London.

Michel Virlogeux

Michel Virlogeux is a French structural engineer born in 1946. He earned his Ph.D. in Engineering from Pierre et Marie Curie University in 1974 and specializes in the design of bridges and viaducts. Through his years in the field, Virlogeux has developed designs for the construction of hundreds of bridges in different parts of the world, with most of his efforts focusing on the development of large, cable-stayed bridges. Though Virlogeux has designed numerous bridge projects, he is perhaps most recognized for designing the Normandy Bridge, a road bridge that opened in 1995 and crosses over the Seine River. Outside of designing bridges, Virlogeux has taught at French universities on the concepts of structural analysis, while also continuing to serve as a consultant in the structural engineering field.

Mary Fergusson

Born in Stoke, England in 1914, Mary Fergusson studied at the University of Edinburgh where she earned a civil engineering degree in 1936. For her career, Fergusson is most notably credited with the design of the River Leven Water Purification Plant, as well as concrete and reinforced steel bridges in Scotland. She is considered the first British woman to work full-time in the civil engineering profession. She was also the first women to hold two other civil engineering titles – a senior partnership position at the engineering firm Blyth & Blyth and a member of Britain’s Institution of Civil Engineers. At the end of her career, she became an experienced consultant in the field and is recognized for her work in the Women’s Engineering Society, as well as her efforts to inspire young engineers Examining our current infrastructures in the context of these key innovators reveals just how impactful their contributions have been. The task falls on today’s civil engineering professionals to not only assess present designs and infrastructures for improvements, but to also consider the ideas of past professionals. Realizing the visions of these engineers and finding ways to build on their existing concepts can be an effective path to new development.

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Nora Stanton Blatch Barney, Encyclopaedia Britannica

Fazlur R. Khan, Encyclopaedia Britannica

An Appreciation: How Elsie Eaves Built ENR's Cost Indexes, Engineering New-Record

Sir Alan Muir Wood, The Telegraph

Michel Virlogeux, Bridges of Dublin

History and Status of Female Faculty in Civil Engineering, American Society of Civil Engineers

Commissioner’s Corner, NYC Environmental Protection

The Father of Prestressed Concrete,

ALLEGHENY RIVER BRIDGE:  Sustainable Design and Construction

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