The Indian sage who contained the floods and other fathers of modern engineering

The Indian sage who contained the floods and other fathers of modern engineering

Their works have been essential to contain the floods and save thousands of lives, but they also revolutionized the way of building bridges or even raising them in suspension, laying the foundations for current construction systems. We explore some of the leading figures to understand the history of modern engineering.

The dam system designed by Sir Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya, called "the builder of India", has been essential to contain floods. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.


The concept of father understood as the original ancestor has developed into a synonym for precursor, which in many fields of knowledge is used to indicate the person or persons who "laid the first stone", that is, those responsible for pioneering advances in a certain subject matter. In the case of engineering, finding a father to honour in his day is a question that depends very much on the cultural perspective.

Who were the first humans to turn to applied science to solve problems concerning our survival as a species? Beyond the Egyptians, Romans or Greeks, the search for a father of contemporary engineering inevitably takes us to more recent history, to the origins of the industrial revolution. We explore some of the leading figures and their great engineering achievements throughout the world.

Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya: education and flood protection

Sir Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya (1861-1962) was an Indian engineer, scholar, politician and statesman who became known as "the builder of India" for developing a complete system of dams and irrigation canals that saved thousands of people from flooding, while also promoting improved food cultivation.

In 1955, Visvesvaraya was awarded the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian merit award for engineering development, and, in fact, India celebrates Engineer's Day on September 15 (his birthday) in his honour. After a long career in close collaboration with the government, in 1908 he decided to retire voluntarily and take a trip around the world to study and explore engineering advances in Western industrialized countries. When he returned to India in 1917, he founded what is now known as UVCE, the University of Visvesvaraya College of Engineering. He carries a knighthood (Sir) in front of his name because King George V of England recognized his contributions to the development of society in India.

Considered the father of modern mechanical engineering, Stephen Timoshenko revolutionized the way of building bridges. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Stephen Timoshenko, a bridge between Russia and the United States

Although Stephen Timoshenko (1878-1972) is considered the father of modern engineering mechanics for such great contributions as the "theory of elastic stability" or "Timoshenko beam theory," he was also a true specialist in bridge building. Although he was of Ukrainian origin, he made a career in Russia and the United States, at a time when both countries were under serious tension in the context of the Cold War. As a teacher, he was also particularly adept at linking university and industry.

Timoshenko developed the mathematical basis for calculating the strength of different materials, which is essential for calculating the strength of bridges, retaining walls, gears, etc. Although he came to work in the United States at the age of 44, his influence on American society was such that in 1957 he received what would be the first "Stephen Timoshenko" medal, which recognised him as a world-renowned authority in the field of applied mechanics, the ultimate gesture to commemorate his contributions as an author and teacher. Since then, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers has awarded the Timoshenko Medal each year for distinguished contributions to applied mechanics.

John (left) and Washington Roebling (right) designed the structure of suspension bridges, and we owe them one of New York's icons, the Brooklyn Bridge. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Rutgers University Library.

John and Washington Roebling: father-son teamwork

John Augustus Roebling (1806-1869) had been successful with his cable factory and took his sons to work with him in the business. He had already developed several important projects in terms of hanging structures, such as the bridge that connects Covington with Cincinnati and that today bears his name (John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge). However, the one that would elevate him as an engineer would be the Brooklyn Bridge, the undisputed emblem of New York City. His design of a suspension structure with stone towers and a self-contained cable car system was accepted, although he never saw it completed.

In 1869, in the middle of the construction process, John Roebling died of tetanus after an injury in a work accident. His son, Washington Roebling, who had been working as an assistant engineer on the bridge, took over and became the chief engineer of the project. Washington made his father's vision a reality, and even made several design improvements, such as adding the pneumatic caissons that form the foundation of the two towers of the Brooklyn Bridge.

In preparation for building the Brooklyn Bridge, John sent his son Washington to Europe to study cable manufacturing. Like all parents, those in engineering were also committed to education, whether through their teaching or the training of their own children.

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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.

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