A Brief History of Civil Engineering Through the Ages

Written by: Sara Dennis


We can see examples of civil engineering throughout history, even though the term ‘civil engineering’ wasn’t used until the 18th century. For millennia, people have designed structures, buildings and infrastructure to serve the general public. In history, we see this starting between 4000 and 2000 BC in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. Many of these examples of early civil engineering achievements still exist in Egypt, China, Rome and many other places.

Author: Samuel Bailey

In Egypt there are between 118-138 pyramids still standing, with the oldest known one built in 2630 BC, more than 4,000 years ago. The tallest pyramid, the Pyramid of Khufu, was originally 146.5 meters tall, which made it the tallest man-made structure globally for over 3,800 years. During this time, the pyramids were not the only great engineering feat happening. In ancient Iran, people were building water management structures call Qanats. These structures are underground channels that transport water from a water well or aquifer to the surface to use for irrigation and drinking, making farming more feasible in arid and mountainous areas. The oldest Qanat is over 71 km long and 3,000 years old.

In the following centuries we saw other civil engineering accomplishments including the Great Wall of China, the Roman Aqueducts, bridges, dams and roads, the Flemish canals, and Machu Picchu – a mountaintop city in the Andes Mountains that was built around 1450 with running water and drainage systems.

The Great Wall of China

Machu Picchu

More recently the building of the Erie Canal served as the United States’ first practical school of civil engineering. This was due to the fact that many of the project engineers and contractors had so little experience constructing canals. Built between 1817 and 1825, the Erie Canal connected Albany with Buffalo, and was the catalyst that put New York City on the map as the center of commerce and finance. Up to the construction of the Canal, it would take two weeks to travel from Albany to Buffalo by stage coach, but with the Canal the trip only took 5 days. After its construction, railroads started to become more widespread, though it endured the competition through 1900. Then, in 1918, to stay competitive and relevant the Canal was supplemented by the larger New York State Barge Canal, which replaced much of the Erie Canal’s original route, leaving some sections abandoned. Nowadays (since around the 1990s), the canal system is used mostly by recreational traffic and some cargo traffic.