'Inventions and adventures': the work of the Stevenson engineering firm in Scotland, c. 1830 - c. 1890
Dishington, Rachel Aitken
This thesis examines the work of the nineteenth-century Stevenson civil engineering firm to argue that civil engineering should be approached geographically both because it takes place in and is shaped by particular spaces, but also because the result of such work reshapes space and the relationship between places. Geographers have extensively analysed the ways in which humans have worked to alter environments, but relatively little attention has been paid to engineering as a socially and geographically transformative process, to the technical questions and to the engineering professionals whose work brought about such change. This thesis analyses engineers as social and technical agents of environmental change, rather than viewing their role as the simple implementation of directives developed elsewhere and by others. It combines insights from the history and historical geography of science, environmental history and the history of technology to make a case for the relevance of an historical geography of engineering. The thesis explores these issues through the work of the Stevenson family. The Stevensons were an Edinburgh-based and internationally-renowned firm of engineers who specialised in the construction of coastal infrastructure. The start and end dates of the thesis indicate, broadly, the careers of David and Thomas Stevenson, who jointly managed the family firm under the name D. & T. Stevenson between 1850 and 1886. The empirical basis for this thesis draws upon the detailed analysis of the firm’s archival records: technical publications, project reports, diaries, correspondence, maps, plans and diagrams. The work of the Stevensons—their engineering epistemologies, practices, and professional identities— are examined through four diverse projects undertaken by the firm in the nineteenth century. These projects are: the training of new engineers; surveying and designing improvement works for the rivers Tay and Clyde; the implementation of a coastal sound-based fog signal network; and the failed attempt to expand Wick harbour through the construction of a breakwater. These projects highlight the range of activities undertaken by nineteenth-century engineers and illustrate the ‘making’ of engineers and the work they did by highlighting training and learning, surveying, maintenance, testing, evaluation, repair and the explanation of failure. With reference to these projects and by drawing upon relevant contextual material, the thesis examines the conceptualisation of geographical space and natural forces in engineering, the relationship between science and engineering, the nature of expertise and notions of engineering judgement, and the role of family, legacy and reputation in securing professional credibility and status. This approach challenges older historiographical traditions which portrayed engineers as individual geniuses. The thesis instead understands engineering to be a combination of specialist knowledge and tacit skill and situates engineers within their social and institutional networks of power and authority. In pointing out that some engineering works failed, the thesis challenges the tendency in histories of engineering works to focus on success. It makes the case for an historical geography of engineering as a way of understanding engineering as an activity, a status and as processes which changed human-environment relations.