The tradition of engineering in the U.S. has deep roots in French, British, Dutch, and Italian innovation. The rise of a professional class of engineers begins, as with many technological innovations, in the military. Louis XIV in France was quick to recognize the value of having technical experts that could survey and assess land accurately, as well as plan massive water and transportation projects. The early French engineer was a soldier, supported through a state-sponsored military-industrial complex that sought enlightened technical expertise in military planning. Later, other European countries such as Britain and the Netherlands also capitalized on opportunities in the new engineering profession. While French engineers were rooted in the pursuit of scientific, rational knowledge, engineers in Britain developed a strong, self-trained, “tinkerer” ethic. Both the scholarly and self-trained engineering traditions had significant influence on American approaches to works projects.
In the mid-nineteenth century, this dichotomy played out in America by pitting self-trained engineers against the newly-created the Army Corps of Engineers. While self-trained engineers sought inclusion of local knowledge into regional solutions, the federally-supported Corps developed more grandiose plans that sometimes ignored local expertise. The two sides often fought bitterly, attempting to manipulate the U.S. Congress to gain advantage in funding allocations for particular projects. After 1840, the worldwide engineering profession began to homogenize, with engineers drawing on both practical and scholarly knowledge to plan projects. In the U.S., scholarly knowledge from the Corps began to percolate into the general public and combine with “home-grown” approaches. Even still, for the Corps, the legacy of this dichotomy was a fervent confidence in its ability to manipulate land and water resources. A resolute organizational culture, as well as lobbying of Congressional funders, grew in an attempt to drown out critics. The Corps was the most prominent organization within the growing engineering profession and it signified the nineteenth century belief in technological prowess to conquer nature. This engineering bravado aligned with national legal, political, and economic structures to rapidly exploit natural resources.
From the mid-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, the colonization of the American West was facilitated by massive engineering projects, including flood control, land reclamation, and hydroelectricity. Virtually all practicing engineers of the day held a deep belief in the power of human design to conquer nature. During the period, federally funded projects drained the Everglades in Florida, re-routed the course of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, and altered water flows in California’s Central Valley. All of the country’s largest dams were constructed. It was the era of big engineering, when grand visions were possible and human achievement was bountiful. The vision was financed through growing national wealth precipitated on extraction of newly accessible natural resources, which fueled rapid urban expansion and massive public works projects across the country. Army and civilian engineers paved the way for large-scale western settlement by taming a rugged landscape and increasing transportation networks to mobilize ever greater resources. Today, that ambition faces the realities of limits, with a resource base that is extensively managed to balance between such immense ambition, technological capabilities, and ecological health.