What is known of the history of structural engineering begins with the ancient Egyptians.  In the 27th century BC, Imhotep was the first man to be referred to as a structural engineer.  He constructed the first known step pyramid during the 26th century BC in Egypt.  The Great Pyramid of Giza remained the largest man-made structure for thousands of years and was considered an unsurpassed feat in engineering and architecture until the 19th century AD.

The understanding of the physical laws that formed the basics of structural engineering in the Western world originated in the 3rd century BC, when Archimedes published his work On the Equilibrium of Planes in two volumes, in which he sets out the Law of the Lever, stating:

“Equal weights at equal distances are in equilibrium, and equal weights at unequal distances are not in equilibrium but incline towards the weight which is at the greater distance”

Archimedes used the principles he derived from the Law of the Lever to calculate the areas and centers of gravity of various geometric figures including triangles, paraboloids, and hemispheres.  His work on this and his work on calculus and geometry, together with Euclidean geometry, form the roots of much of the mathematics involved in modern structural engineering.

The ancient Romans are responsible for pioneering large structures in masonry and concrete.  Many of these structures still stand soundly and  include aqueducts, columns, defensive walls and harbors.  In 25 BC, Vitruvius documented these methods in his De Architectura, a manual of civil and structural engineering.  He wrote extensive sections on materials and machines that were used in construction.  Roman architectural success can be largely attributed to their highly accurate surveying techniques.

Amazingly, during the 15th and 16th centuries, Leonardo Da Vinci managed to engineer many designs without the benefit of calculus and beam theory.  He based his designs mainly on scientific observations.  Galileo, Hooke and Newton also managed to engineer sound structures without the mathematical theories in use today.  Then in the 18th century, Leonhard Euler pioneered much of the mathematics and methods which allow structural engineers to model and analyze structures.  He developed the Euler-Bernoulli beam equation – the fundamental theory underlying most structural engineering design – with Daniel Bernoulli (1700–1782) circa 1750.

Developments in the understanding of materials and structural behavior in the latter part of the 20th century have been significant, with detailed understanding being developed of topics such as fracture mechanics, earthquake engineering, composite materials, temperature effects on materials, dynamics and vibration control, fatigue, creep and others.  The body of knowledge now available to structural engineers is wholly responsible for the high degree of complexity seen in modern structures.  This complexity in turn has led to an increase in the specialization of structural engineers.

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