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How Long Has Humankind Been Building Things? The History of Civil Engineering in 500 Words or Less

history of civil engineering

Civil engineering is responsible for the design and construction of the things that create a safe environment enabling civilization to be civilized. Designing and overseeing the building of structures for shelter, roads and bridges for transportation, sewage treatment to access clean water—these are the creations of civil engineering. Understandably, civil engineering is an important profession for the functioning of humankind as a society of people (in fact, the master of civil engineering degree is currently one of the most popular online master’s degree programs that professionals pursue as an online degree). Historically, when did civil engineering begin? We’ll examine some of the history of civil engineering and we’ll even provide information on how you, our humble reader, can pursue this popular degree.

From the earliest civilized times, humans have needed to design ways to make sure they had access to food, clean water, other communities and necessities for survival. Where would we be if the first civil engineer had not moved out of a cave to build a structure to shelter their family, or carved out a path to walk to the stream to get water, or ceased to be nomads and formed a fixed community with other humans? Well, we might be back in time before Ancient Egypt exploded and created an infrastructure that helped civilization take a quantum leap forward in terms of living and thriving as a society.

First let’s look back at some of the most significant early engineers and engineering feats. Possibly the first engineer, Imhotep (born sometime in the 27th century Before Common Era) of Egypt, is often credited with designing a step pyramid during the reign of King Djoser (pharaoh from 2630–2611 BCE). Utilizing a architecture method of stacking stone columns to provide support to buildings, his creation still stands today. Jump forward about 1000 years, and you have the beginnings of the techniques used to build the Great Wall of China. The earliest walls were constructed using rammed earth, which involved molding dirt, gravel, and other bits of moistened earth together with a stabilizer and jamming the mixture into a mold. Through the centuries the engineering methods improved greatly, and items like stones and bricks were used to produce a more stable, durable structure–hence the construction of the Great Wall of China. Looking closer towards the beginning of the Common Era (CE), we find the famous Roman aqueducts. These water ways were regulated by the government–the land on which an aqueduct was going to be constructed first had to be carefully surveyed for instance, and the materials used to build the aqueduct itself had to meet certain standards. Much like civil engineering of today, rules and codes had to be followed in order to safely, legally, and sustainably construct these important elements of the Roman infrastructure. The first time in recorded history that the actual term “civil engineering” was used was in the 1700s in order to differentiate civilian design and construction from all military engineering. John Smeaton (1724-1792 CE) was the first person to call themselves a civil engineer, and the first private institution of higher education in the United State to teach civil engineering was Norwich University, and a catalogue dating back to 1821 listed coursework in “Civil Engineering, including the construction of roads, canals, locks and bridges.”

If you want to join this long history of making life better for humankind, and you already have a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering or a related field, pursuing your online master’s degree couldn’t be easier. Look at this list of the 50 best online master of civil engineering degrees in order to start your search for the perfect school.

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Best Online MS Civil Engineering
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Michael Templeton
Managing Editor

Kacey Reynolds Schedler
Contributing Editor