One hundred  years ago, when two engineering journals merged to form Engineering News-Record, the engineering profession and the construction industry were much different than today. In 1917 in the U.S., there were few engineering journals, and the fields of municipal and sanitary engineering were almost entirely un-developed. But some issues of the past are still on the critical list today.

Almost all the early editors had civil engineering degrees. Henry C. Meyer, a manufacturer of plumbing supplies, founded Engineering Record in 1877. Public-spirited, he launched the publication “to share news of methods of conserving public health.” George H. Frost, a land surveyor, started Engineering News in 1874. Leadership transitioned to Arthur M. Wellington, who began the tradition of  investigating and reporting lessons from accidents in engineered structures.

Ownership of both periodicals transitioned over the years and after decades as competitors, these two leading journals consolidated, bringing a single, unified voice to industry news coverage. In the first issue on April 5, 1917 (left), James H. McGraw, the new publisher, wrote a compelling editorial that sets out a mission that is followed to this day. “The paper must be above personalities,” he wrote. “It must be an institution. Its principles must be so grounded in truth that they cannot be changed ... its traditions so entwined with the interests of its readers that it cannot without an unthinkable shock divorce itself from their service.”

—Scott Lewis

Different Century, Same Workforce Management Issues

ENR Vintage CoverWith industrial production booming as World War I raged in Europe and the U.S. was about to enter into combat, ENR’s April 1917 editorial pages termed domestic construction labor shortages as “the greatest difficulty engineers have to face in planning work for the coming season.” 

Military service would soon drain the workforce and the industry could not depend on farm labor, said ENR on April 12, 1917, so it urged cities to make “very material reductions” in public works and other projects. It cited New York City’s “acute” situation, which forced Mayor John Mitchel to enlist municipal engineers to help decide which projects to delay but said work should continue on the city’s subway system, “regardless of high prices for labor and material” since revenue was urgent to recoup the $150 million invested. But predicting “that, sooner or later, the pendulum will swing in the other direction,” ENR said delaying projects was a better alternative for predicted construction unemployment than “soup kitchens and bread-line distribution.” Twelve years later, the stock market crash heralded the Great Depression.

On April 5, 1917, ENR urged engineers to help create the U.S.“fighting machine” by enlisting in the Reserve corps, citing the “absolute necessity of efficient engineer troops in modern military operations.” With recruiting funds tight, it was engineers’ “patriotic duty” to volunteer, said the editorial. “Superintendents, foremen and gang bosses will make good noncommissioned officers.”

But ENR also waxed about America’s post-war future and the role of engineers in helping America confront the social impacts of the era’s technological innovations by understanding “human problems that [their] material discoveries have created.”

Despite the industry’s traditionally male makeup, the publication ironically noted that the women who replaced skilled men in England in war factories had doubled the country’s munitions production.

—Debra K. Rubin

Current Concrete Spillway's Failure Issues Echo the Past

ENR Vintage CoverWhile dam construction techniques have evolved over the past century, it’s still relevant that “construction details of apparently minor importance may become vital, in time, in the maintenance and safety of concrete spillway dams,” as Eugene Lauchli wrote in Engineering News-Record 100 years ago this month. His words reverberate today as, for example, engineers in California determine the cause of the Oroville Dam spillway damage and formulate a fix.

In February, heavy water flows opened up a 500-ft-long, 300-ft-wide and 45-ft-deep crater on Oroville’s concrete-lined controlled spillway at the site of earlier patchwork to the concrete, leading to severe damage to the 770-ft-tall dam’s unlined emergency spillway.

In his April 5, 1917, article highlighting the causes of concrete spillway damage in several dams completed at that time, Lauchli, an civil and hydraulic engineer in New York City, wrote, “The question arises among engineers as to the advisability of facing the downstream, or spillway, side of concrete dams with a material less subject to wear and tear under severe duty than is ordinary cement concrete.”

Today, engineers are calling for replacing the Oroville spillway with thicker concrete, more rebar and secure anchors to underlying rock, compared to what was originally built in the 1960s. Cavitation—high-pressure shock waves caused by high-velocity water—may be a contibuting factor in Oroville’s failure and was also a major concern among dams built in the 1910s. Back then, Lauchli wrote that some dam builders around the U.S. and abroad were using “an apron or shield of stone or artificial masonry blocks,” while others were using obstacles in the path of the flow to increase friction and decrease water velocity, a strategy that continues today.

At present, the average age of dams in the U.S. is 56 years, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Nearly 15,500 have high-hazard potential.

—Scott Blair

Covering Industry Workplace Safety for a Century

ENR Vintage CoverA  December 1916 explosion and fire killed 26 people and destroyed nine buildings, comprising most of the Quaker Oats plant in Peterborough, Ontario. The cost of the damage was put at $2 million, which would be $46.9 million in 2017 dollars. Only 10 days earlier, Canada was reeling from a much greater tragedy: A French cargo ship loaded with high explosives and bound for Bordeaux collided with a Norwegian vessel in Halifax Harbor. The cargo on the SS Mont Blanc ignited, and the resulting explosion killed approximately 2,000 people and injured 9,000.

In April 1917, ENR published a detailed account of the plant explosion, drawn from investigations by building officials in Toronto and the Canadian Fire Underwriters Association. The extensive account detailed the fire’s destructive path and the damage imposed upon concrete and steel by temperatures that exceeded 2,200° F.

ENR’s report on the Peterborough fire compares the damage to another industrial conflagration two years earlier—a spectacular blaze in West Orange, N.J., which destroyed 10 buildings of Thomas Edison’s laboratory complex. As he watched the flames, Edison said to his 24-year-old son Charles: “Go get your mother and all her friends. They’ll never see a fire like this again.” The inventor and businessman told The New York Times, “Although I am 67 years old, I’ll start all over again tomorrow.”

ENR’s thorough coverage of the Quaker Oats explosion and fire set a precedent that the magazine follows to this day: reporting on lesson learned from engineering and construction disasters. In recent issues, the magazine has examined the Liberty Bridge fire in Pittsburgh and the collapse of an Interstate 85 overpass in Atlanta. Coverage of industrial disasters, such as fatal explosions at a Texas City, Texas, refinery in 2005 and a Kleen Energy Systems power-plant in Middletown, Conn., in 2010  also have a familiar ring, even a century after the Canadian disaster. Materials may be better now and accident rates may have declined, but events suggest there is still room for improvement.

—Andrew G. Wright

Early Water and Sewage Progress Recognized

ENR Vintage CoverMunicipal sewage disposal was in its infancy when Engineering News and Engineering Record were founded in the 1870s. Chlorination presented challenges as dosages had to be adjusted, depending on the amounts of soluble and suspended organic matter, which were not easily measured. Underdosing would fail to destroy bacteria, while overdosing would result in objectionable taste and odors. This wide-ranging appraisal of U.S. sewage-treatment methodology addressed the limits of chlorination as a cure-all for improving water quality.

Long before most environmental regulations were in place, an April 5, 1917, ENR article sheds light on the inadequate attention being paid to sewage treatment facilities, citing a study which found that only 60% of the country’s plants included laboratories. It also highlights some cities’ costly construction efforts to pipe untreated sewage out of range of water-supply reservoirs.

The article delves into the demands faced by local officials attempting to take advantage of their local streams for multiple, conflicting purposes. It concludes, “Local problems of sewage disposal must be solved, if solved wisely, by adjustment to a wide range of local factors and conditions.”

The preeminent sanitary engineer of that era, author George W. Fuller was trained in bacteriology and chemistry. He designed and built the first modern water filtration plant as well as the first chlorination system, which disinfected a drinking-water supply in the U.S.

ENR continues to provide a wide-ranging appraisal of the construction industry as it strives to solve engineering problems that heavily impact public health. 

— By Scott Lewis