The history of the ICE’s engagement with research and innovation in civil engineering

The Institution of Civil Engineer’s (ICE’s) sponsorship of Innovation and Research Focus represents part of a continuing commitment to fostering and disseminating research that dates back more or less to the Institution’s foundation in 1818. Civil engineers have always had a practical interest in research - John Smeaton tested the properties of cements to find those that would set under water, Thomas Telford investigated the strength of wrought and cast iron, and the resistance of canal boats, and Benjamin Baker (pictured) carried out research into the properties of steel and the force of wind on structures. Such work was generally motivated by the need to solve practical problems in civil engineering related to specific jobs or projects.

The tradition of project-focused research continues today, for example with the trial erection of parts of structures to demonstrate their buildability. More difficult, however, has been persuading the industry to invest in what might be considered ‘blue sky research’, difficult to justify in terms of specific jobs, but of enduring value to industry in the medium term. Examples would be the research supported by contractors and the railway industry at the Building Research Establishment (BRE) in the 1930s that led to the establishment of soil mechanics in the UK after the Second World War. The ICE has played a crucial role in such developments, and Innovation and Research Focus, as a publication, represents a means of ensuring that the best research is disseminated as quickly as possible to practitioners and the broader research community, to facilitate take up and to accelerate innovation.  

Benjamin Baker carried out early research into steel properties and wind forces on structures

When the ICE was established, research was very much the initiative of individual engineers. Eighteenth century engineers like John Grundy, John Smeaton and James Watt were very much children of the scientific enlightenment. They developed their ideas and designs through observation and testing, and shared them at scientific meetings. The ICE was well placed to continue this tradition through its own meetings. However, although some hydraulic theories had been proposed, and elasticity had been applied to some structural problems, the raft of inter-related theories that underpinned twenty first century Eurocodes was absent. Instead there existed a deep scepticism among practitioners about the value of theory, and engineers like Thomas Telford preferred the reassurance of physical tests to any mathematical models.

In a situation where technology led science, engineers sought reassurance for their designs by testing materials and using physical models. Results were noted in memorandum books and, led by Telford, they began to be published in textbooks.

Above on the left is the front cover of the first edition of Research Focus published in April 1990. On the right is a view of the Innovation & Research Focus website shortly after the publication of the 99th issue in November 2014.

The Adelaide Gallery, supported by Telford and other leading ICE members, contained a tank where canal boat experiments were conducted. Such experimentation was a feature of early ICE papers. Dissatisfaction with their methodology led David Kirkaldy to develop the first modern, private, testing laboratory. At the end of the nineteenth century, future ICE President Alexander Kennedy established the first British University engineering laboratory at University College London. These developments were taking place against a more rapid development of university and state engineering research facilities elsewhere.

In the UK, there was a tradition of state funding of research in the military sector, and in around 1800 Peter Barlow of the Royal Military Academy and Charles Pasley of the Royal Engineers facilitated civil research. The Admiralty used Brunel to assist in its propulsion trials in the middle of the century, and the state were involved in sponsoring research in the wake of the Dee and Tay Bridge disasters. Generally, however, research and materials testing were the work of individual engineers before the First World War. Big questions remained unresolved and were beyond the resources of individuals.

The ICE recognised this and began to sponsor as well as report research. It established a committee in 1897 to develop a uniform system of tabulating the results of steam engine and boiler trials. They produced their first report in 1904. The committee was reconstituted in 1909. By that time, the ICE-led Engineering Standards Committee (now the British Standards Institution) was also at work, and was soon initiating research, particularly with regard to electrical equipment. In another area not normally associated with civil engineering today, a committee chaired by Professor William Cawthorne Unwin reported in 1905 on a standard for thermodynamic efficiency for internal combustion engines. At this time the ICE backed the establishment of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), and made an annual grant towards its activities. The work carried out on wind loads on structures was an early priority for the Institution. William Henry Preece and Sir John Wolfe Barry represented the ICE on the NPL Board in the early years.

The First World War highlighted the weaknesses of the British approach to research, and the establishment of the Department for Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) in 1916 made it easier for the Institution to leverage attention within government to civil engineering research priorities. The first fruits were funding of £1,000 a year, initially until 1927, for what became known as the Sea Action Committee – a long-term investigation into the deterioration of structures of timber, metal, and concrete and metal when exposed to the action of sea water. This was based on monitoring deterioration of structures at 50 ports across the then British Empire.

Work continued until the 1960s with some of the later reports being produced by the Building Research Station rather than the Institution. Before the Concrete in the Oceans Programme in the 1980s and other reports associated with the offshore industry, this was the most comprehensive programme of research in this area. The committee was initially chaired by Sir William Matthews of Coode Son and Matthews. Mathews was also involved with the ICE’s committee on Reinforced Concrete, which produced a preliminary report in 1910 and a second report in 1912.

In the interwar years the ICE supported the research that led to a number of codes of practice, for Compressed Air Working, Water Retaining Structures and, through the DSIR, for reinforced concrete and steel. The Working Party on Compressed Air, a multi-disciplinary body, is perhaps the longest established research group with which the ICE has been associated.

Close working with the Government on research led to ICE representation on the Board of the Building Research Station from its foundation. An early focus of research was creep in concrete. The BRE work on soil mechanics was initially a continuation of the work on earth pressure initiated at the National Physical Laboratory. The ICE also supported the establishment of the Hydraulics Research Station, Road Research Station, the Water Pollution Research Station and the Institute of Hydrology.

With official recognition of the need for properly funded research in civil engineering, one might assume that the ICE could relax, but in fact the inter war years saw the ICE as very active in this area. In 1933 a recommendation was made to survey the inland water resources of the country and in 1935 this was begun under the auspices of the Ministry of Health and the Scottish Office. In the post war period a major programme of recording piling tests was supported. By 1960 so great was the ICE’s commitment it decided the best way forward was by creating an industry supported body. The original Civil Engineering Research Council became the Civil Engineering Research Association, and then, to include buildings in its scope, it became the Construction Industry Research and Information Association (CIRIA), which continues its important work to this day.

Today the ICE continues to sponsor research through its Research & Development Enabling Fund, and active engagement of senior members on research bodies like HR Wallingford, and the Transport Research Foundation. However, none of this research can fulfil its value if it is not taken up by industry. That is why this newsletter, Innovation and Research Focus, which has now reached its 100th issue, is of such great importance.

This article was written by Mike Chrimes, Former Director, Engineering Policy and Innovation,The Institution of Civil Engineers.

For further information related to this article please contact Rose Marney ( Further information on the ICE’s current work on innovation and research across a wide range of topic areas is available at Information specifically on the work of the Innovation and Research Panel is at


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