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Building Bridges: A Celebration of 175 Years of Civil Engineering

by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

School of Engineering: Civil Engineering 175th Anniversary Dinner
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, N.Y.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Thank you, Dean Rosowsky.

This is a joyous evening for all of us. I am glad to see you all here. It is appropriate that this is the first big event of Reunion and Homecoming weekend. Since few of us live within walking distance, we should thank civil engineers for the roads, bridges, and airports that got us here safely.

Civil engineers are not always top of mind with the public today, but their craft and daring has been appreciated many times in history. When we think of the Panama Canal, the Transcontinental Railroad and Grand Coulee Dam — all of which had critical contributions from Rensselaer alumni/ae — civil engineers rise to the level of heroes. I believe the needs of our society are once again catapulting civil engineers to the forefront, and I will share my thoughts in a few moments.

But before I go further, I would like to recognize some of the people who have joined us here tonight.

If our guests could stand as we call your names.

  • Frank Griggs ’56, ’58G is a member of the ASCE National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark committee and nominator of Rensselaer as a National Historic Landmark
  • Mr. Stanley Gee ’71 is the Acting Commissioner of NYS Board of Transportation he will provide introductory remarks at the Civil Engineering State of Department tomorrow morning.
  • Neal Barton ’58 former Rensselaer Acting President and Institute Trustee, now member of the RAA Board.
  • Rensselaer Trustee Howard Blitman, ’50.
  • The 16th President of Rensselaer, Roland Schmitt.
  • And Alumni Hall of Fame family representatives, Michael Cahill ’49 the great great nephew of our benefactor Margaret Sage; Clay Bedford, Jr. ’50, who represents his father, industrialist and engineer Clay Bedford; and Jannie Gibson-Daggs who is the cousin of the distinguished landscape engineer Garnet Douglass Baltimore

Welcome, all of you!

I also congratulate Dr. James Mitchell — for his receipt today of the Davies Medal for Engineering Achievement. He is truly a distinguished honoree, and we are proud to count him as an alumnus.  And I would like to add my personal thanks to Dr. David Billington, the Gordon Y.S. Wu Professor of Engineering, Emeritus, in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Princeton University for agreeing to keynote tomorrow’s celebration, and to Kathy Caldwell, the President-elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), who will present the National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark plaque at the conclusion of the Colloquy.

Civil Engineering in the United States began here. One hundred and seventy-five years ago, Rensselaer created the first degree program — in fact, up here on the dais I have a newspaper clipping of a notice for “Instruction, wholly practical, illustrated by experiment and specimens.” This 1835 notice of a civil engineering degree was published exactly 175 years ago today and lists Amos Eaton, one of our founders, as the agent.

This is where civil engineering began, but it is the story that follows that is most interesting. We are looking back at a history of accomplishment. The building of the Erie Canal helped to open up the United States. As parts of our heritage, we can point to both the charm of the Ferris Wheel and the practical elegance of the Brooklyn Bridge. And whether you are a Yankees fan or part of Red Sox Nation, you admire the Osborns, father and son, who designed both Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park.

But the story is even more remarkable when you look beyond the United States. Almost from the beginning, our graduates were reaching out beyond this country. In Latin America, as in the United States, Rensselaer graduates led the way — from the construction of the Copiapo Railroad in Chile, the first steam railroad south of the equator, to the famous Verrugus Viaduct on the Lima and Oroya Railroad in Peru, which stood nearly six thousand feet above sea level. And those who provided the key surveys for the Panama Canal were also our graduates. Their work laid the foundation for economic development and expansion.

When Commodore Perry opened Japan for trade, Wells Williams (Class of 1832) was with him as a translator. After the Meiji Revolution, Japanese students traveled to Rensselaer to obtain an engineering education. Three men who earned civil engineering degrees returned to Japan to make essential contributions: Two served as president of the Imperial Railways of Japan and one became a chief engineer in Tokyo, where he designed many of its bridges.

Of course, our alumni/ae continue to make critical contributions in civil engineering. For instance, the late Dato’ Ramli Mohamad ’82, served as managing director of United Engineers (Berhad) Malaysia, and his company built that country’s major highways, and the international airport in Kuala Lumpur. Both Dr. Rosowsky and Dr. Abdoun have done research aimed at understanding and mitigating natural disasters. I have no doubt that a world, facing challenges of renewable energy, sustainability, clean water, and aging infrastructure, will turn to Rensselaer’s civil engineers for answers.

Rensselaer people have done much, and will do more. I cannot begin to cover all the accomplishments over the last 175 years. Luckily, we have a video that recounts the key contributions of Rensselaer’s alumni/ae. I am sure you will conclude that they have literally reshaped our world. It would be difficult to imagine our lives without their achievements.

[Five minute video plays.]

Our alumni/ae and faculty are an inspiration to us.

They have pushed the limits of imagination, dedication, and skill over the years, and these qualities are still alive at Rensselaer.

We do not say thank you enough to our civil engineers. Each time we get into our cars or step into a subway or a train, we bet our lives on the quality of their work and the commitment they have to their profession. We take for granted their work — which is essential to our doing our jobs, our spending time with our families, and our helping people in desperate situations (as was illustrated dramatically over the last few days in Chile).

As will be discussed in the 175th Anniversary of Civil Engineering Colloquy tomorrow, the level of appreciation of this discipline may be about to change. We are facing an era or large projects with subtle requirements. As in the past, we cannot hope to deal with the issues of our day without the active involvement of civil engineers. The critical role they will play may make them, once again, heroes of a sort — perhaps with the recognition they deserve.

In part, the visibility of civil engineering is likely to increase because civil engineers will provide analysis and answers — at times — in the glare of the spotlight. But they will have another role as well. Civil engineering is a profession that builds bridges, literally, but also figuratively. Often, it is the civil engineer who takes the larger view and brings parties together. We prepare our graduates to lead, and, facing both the immediate challenges of our infrastructure and engineering’s Grand Challenges, Rensselaer’s civil engineers will have the opportunity to take on society’s needs and help us to respond with vision and judgment. Our graduates have done it before — with a dedication to excellence that can only inspire us — and our graduates will do it again, rising to the challenges we face.

Thank you again for being here. We are delighted that you are able to join us for this celebration.

Please accept my personal invitation for all of you to join us for tomorrow’s colloquy. I wish you a good evening.


Source citations are available from Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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