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Navigating a changing environment — hydrologist, engineer, advocate for renewable energy, currently writing about the personal side of technological progress

Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables to make sense of life lived during a difficult time.

Photo credit: VillageTheatre, CC BY-SA 4.0, via

Victor Hugo was part of a generation in 19th France whose lives were battered by divisive politics, disruptive technology, and a deadly pandemic. Hugo’s views on protest and the human face of progress are as relevant to us today as they were then.

Victor Hugo came of age during a period when France was ruled by an arch-conservative monarchy that was intent on turning back the clock by 30 years. The monarchy wanted to restore France to a golden age that existed before the French Revolution of 1789. That revolution and the decades of civil unrest and war that followed…

Styles of uniforms for students at the Ecole Polytechnique during the 19th Century ()

Plato described the model leader as intelligent, educated, and devoted to the good of the people — a philosopher king. During the 19th century France pursued this ideal more than any other nation in modern times by creating a corps of highly educated engineers to serve the needs of the state. However, the creation of France’s national corps of engineers also influenced the development of engineering as a profession. Therefore, the legacy of the French engineer-as-philosopher-prince lives on in present-day engineers worldwide.

It is the fate of most people to live their lives profoundly ignorant of the true state of…

I wear an . This means that, like most Canadian engineers, I have participated in the Ritual Calling of an Engineer ceremony. It was there that I first heard a phrase that perfectly captures what I had long known to be true — the perversity of inanimate things. And, it has stayed with me ever since.

The Ritual was created by Rudyard Kipling in 1922 at the request of leading Canadian engineers. Kipling was a prolific writer and poet during the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. …

I picked up Les Miserables to read for background when I started researching 19th France about 15 years ago, and that was the smartest thing I could have done. I have gone back to it repeatedly, and each time I find something new.

There’s political science, political economy, and even “the art of politics.” However, a similar pairing of “politics” with the vocation of “engineering” does not exist. Politics and engineering might as well exist in separate parallel universes. Except, this has not always been the case.

Charles Freycinet, engineer and politician ()

In fact, the origin of the engineering profession can be traced to a time and place, 19th century France, in which engineers were closely associated with government and politics. That history lives on today in the special role that professional engineers claim for themselves in service to the public.

Elections held in 2017 and 2018 represent…

No one would think of Paris in the same way.

Édouard Lockroy, newly-selected Minister of Commerce and Industry in January 1886 ()

Gustave Eiffel is famous for building the most widely known structure in the world, the the Eiffel Tower. But, he does not deserve all the credit. When it was constructed, in 1889, the Eiffel Tower was the tallest building ever made. Eiffel could do that, as an accomplished engineer and the owner of a large engineering and construction firm. But, it is the tower’s location in the middle of Paris that accounts for the its lasting notoriety. Eiffel did not have the power to put it there. That was the work of another man.

“Engineering is the the art of directing the great sources of power in Nature for the use and convenience of man.” — from the charter of the Institution of Civil Engineers

The Eddystone lighthouse built by John Smeaton in 1759. ()

In September 1888, Sir Frederick Bramwell addressed the British Association for the Advancement of Science on the topic of the value of engineering to science. Bramwell introduced this topic with the definition for the art of the engineer that is quoted above. Bramwell was a well-known engineer. This was his inaugural speech as newly-elected president of the association.

The practice of engineering is often described as applied science, and…

Charles Adolphe Wurtz built a convincing case for the existence of atoms based on a century of progress in the field of chemistry. The idea of the atom as a basic building block of matter was first proposed by ancient philosophers. The word derives from the ancient Greek word atomos, which means uncuttable. However, it was the development of modern chemistry during the 19th century that showed that matter is constructed in this way.

Wurtz was one of the best-known French scientists during the last half of the 19th century. In 1881, he published The Atomic Theory, in which he…

Three-point flexure test of a composite concrete beam (Wikipedia)

Henri Édouard Tresca applied the tools of science to test materials and evaluate the performance of mechanical devices. recruited Tresca, in 1853, to join the in the new role of engineer on staff. Tresca’s first assignment was to convert the abandoned church of the priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs into a machine hall where visitors could see full-sized machines — steam engines, pumps, and machine tools — in operation.

The Conservatoire had its origins during the French Revolution as a repository for valuable instruments, tools, drawings, and machines acquired by the national government. The intent…

Ecohydrology is the area of scientific study shared by ecology and hydrology.

Photos by the author

research investigates the effects of hydrological processes on the distribution, structure, and function of ecosystems, and on the effects of biotic processes on elements of the water cycle. Prior to the beginning of the 21st century, the term ecohydrology had been applied to a few distinct areas of interdisciplinary study. This note traces these origins of what has since developed into a .

In 1997, the IHP identified ecohydrology as a new paradigm for sustainable management of water resources [Zalewski et al., 1997]. …

William Nuttle

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