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A brief history of structural engineering


Structural engineers indeed play a crucial role in society. On the façade, it might seem that structural engineers are just professionals whose only job is to do a series of mathematical calculations about the strength and resiliency of a built structure, but it’s more than just that.

In New Jersey, structural engineers are reliable professionals whose expertise are retained by property managers for a plethora of reasons.  From ensuring that residential and commercial buildings can withstand the forces present during the hurricane season, preserving the historical significance of old structures across the state, and helping the owners fulfill their legal obligation of providing a safe dwelling space for the occupants – it’s fair to say that structural engineers are not just “math wizards” – they are professionals whose collective efforts make our world safe, secure, and comfortable to live in.

The impact that structural engineering has had in our society is so significant that it warrants a look back at its history. Read on as we present a condensed review of the history of structural engineering and the most important events and milestones that show how the field has progressed throughout time.

Pre-Scientific Revolution (27th Century BC – Early 18th Century A.D.)

  • 2700 BC – Imhotep, the first-named architect in history, built the step pyramid for Pharaoh Djoser. Pyramids were the most common built structures in ancient history because its structural form is inherently stable and can be scaled to different dimensions easily.
  • 2560 BC – The Great Pyramid of Giza was built. It remained the largest man-made structure for millennia until the rise of towers and skyscrapers in the 19th
  • 3rd BC – Archimedes published his work On the Equilibrium of PlanesHis calculations on areas and centers of gravity of various geometric figures including triangles, paraboloids and hemispheres underpin most of the mathematics and principles of structures in modern structural engineering.
  • 1st BC – Vitruvius recorded in his De Architectura the methods, materials, and machines used by ancient Romans to build structures such as aqueducts, thermae, columns, lighthouses, defensive walls, and harbors.
  • 1638 – Galileo Galilei published Dialogues Relating to Two New Sciences where he outlined the sciences of strength of materials and motion of objects. This work marked the beginning of the structural analysis.
  • 1676 – Robert Hooke’s first statement of Hooke’s Law provided a scientific explanation of elasticity of materials and their behavior under load.
  • 1687 – Sir Isaac Newton published Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematicawherein his Laws of Motion provided an understanding of the fundamental laws governing built structures.
  • Newton and Gottfried Leibniz both independently developed the Fundamental Theory of Calculus, which is considered one most important mathematical tools in engineering.
  • 1750 – Leonhard Euler and David Bernoulli developed the EulerBernoulli BeamEquation – the fundamental theory underlying most structural engineering design.
  • Daniel Bernoulli and Jean Bernoulli also developed the Theory of Virtual Work, a tool that uses equilibrium of forces and compatibility of geometry in solving structural problems.

19th and 20th Century

  • 1797 – The Ditherington Flax Mill in Shrewsbury, England, was built. It was the first building to use cast iron as its interior frame.
  • 1804 – Belper North Mill, the world’s first “fire-proof” building, was built.
  • 1824 – Portland Cement was patented by Engineer Joseph Aspdin. It is the most common type of cement in general use around the world today.
  • 1826 – Claude-Louis Navier published the Elastic Theory of He was the first to highlight that the duty of a structural engineer is not to understand the final, failed state of a structure, but to prevent that failure in the first place.
  • Navier also established the elastic modulus as a property of a material to resist being deformed elastically when a stress is applied to it.
  • His works have made many to consider him as the Founder of Modern Structural Analysis.
  • 1858 – Henry Bessemer successfully completed the conversion of cast iron into cast steel. This material eventually replaced wrought iron and cast iron as preferred metal in construction.
  • 1867 – Joseph Monier filed several patents for tubs, slabs, and beams that use his steel mesh reinforcement and concrete system. This led to the creation of the Monier system of reinforced structures, the first use of steel bars located in areas of tension of a structure.
  • 1885 – William Le Baron Jenney built the Home Insurance Building in Chicago – the first metal-framed building and first skyscraper in the world.
  • 1889 – The wroughtiron Eiffel Tower was built by Gustave Eiffel and Maurice Koechlin to demonstrate the potential of building structures using iron, despite the fact that steel construction was already popular in many 1st-world countries.
  • 1928 – Eugène Freyssinet pioneered and patented Prestressed Concrete, a method which is still being used to overcome the inherent weakness of concrete structures in tension.
  • 1930 – Professor Hardy Cross developed Moment Distribution Method, a tool used to approximate the real stresses of complex structures quickly and accurately.
  • 1953 – The Soviet Union successfully built seven massive skyscrapers, dubbed the “Seven Sisters of Moscow.
  • 1955 – While employed in an architectural firm, Fazlur Khan began working in Chicago. It is where the world of engineering saw some of the most innovative structural designs for skyscrapers, including the Tube Structural Systems, Framed Tube, Trussed Tube and X-Bracing, Bundle Tube, Tube in Tube, and Shear Wall Frame Interaction System.
  • 1956 – The paper Stiffness and Deflection of Complex Structures was published. It introduced the name “finite-element method” which is still regarded as the first comprehensive treatment of the method today.

Information Age

  • 1965 –  NASTRAN(NASA Structural Analysis) is developed as a structural analysis solver tool. The development of finite-element analysis programs has enabled structural engineers to predict the stressed in complex structures accurately.
  • 1969 – The MacNeal-Schwendler Corporation initiated the first commercially available version of NASTRAN, and dubbed it MSC/NASTRAN.  This would be known as the first generation of FEA software.
  • 1973 – The Sydney Opera House was built. It is where computational analysis software was significantly used for the first time by structural engineers, which has been estimated to help them save almost 10 years of human work.
  • 1982 – Autodesk Co. introduced AutoCAD, which is still among the most widely used CAD programs used by structural engineers these days.
  • 2002 – The terms “Building Information Model” and “Building Information Modeling,” including the acronym  “BIM” was popularized after Autodesk released a White Paper entitled “Building Information Modeling,”.
    Today, “BIM,” software programs are being used by structural engineers to improve structural documentation, minimize data errors, and coordinate various building models across multiple engineering disciplines to help achieve a better design output.

All of these historic milestones greatly contributed to the advancement of structural engineering. As this field advances, people can expect to benefit from structures with even greater structural efficiency and safety than what modern buildings have today.

For several years, the team at Lockatong Engineering has provided clients throughout New Jersey with high-quality structural engineering services, informed by an in-depth understanding of the most advanced techniques, technology, and materials on the market. Visit our website today at to learn more.



  1. It’s good to know that structural engineers are more than just professionals who do calculations to determine the strength of a structure. My sister has been telling me about how she wants to get a new office built in the coming weeks. I’ll share this information with her so that she can look into her options for structural engineers who can help her with this.

  2. It was interesting when you explained that the Sydney Opera House was the first time structural engineers relied heavily on computational analysis software. My brother wants to have a custom home built with unique architectural elements around the entryway and garage. Asking structural engineers about the software you mentioned should help him find one that’s knowledgeable, so I’ll be sure to pass along that tip the next time I see him!


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