Information sheet

19th Century Engineering Journals

Sheet number 54

Scope of the collection

These fall into two main categories, the publications of the professional engineering institutions and what, in modern parlance, one would term specialist magazines.


The Institution of Civil Engineers was Britain's first to venture into publishing, with the Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, which began in 1838 and continues, via changes of title and format, to this day.  The term 'civil' served only to distinguish the institution from military engineering, so that what we now consider mechanical engineering or naval architecture was included at first, and continued to be so for some considerable time after the foundation of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1846 and the Institute of Naval Architects in 1857.  Initially one modest sized volume of very short papers covered four years, but by the 1860s the volumes were annual and growing large.  By 1875 they were bound in four parts, and by the mid-80s these 'quarter-volumes' were quite substantial books.  Papers had grown longer, and discussions were published in full, until it was quite common for one paper, with its discussion, to occupy a hundred pages.  It should also be remembered that the Institution of Electrical Engineers, whose Transactions began in 1877, were originally the Institution of Telegraph Engineers.  These four sequences provide a huge amount of information in many areas of dock and marine engineering.  There are three important regional publications of Transactions: the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland; the North East Institution of Shipbuilders and the Liverpool Engineering Society.


The papers in these publications come from leading men in the field at the time and provide us with their perceptions of what their work was about as well as the theory and practice of what they did.  The discussions give a wide range of informed opinion on the subject of each paper.  The Civils, Mechanicals and Electricals all published excellent cumulative indexes, which make finding material fairly simple.  They also provide other useful information: Presidential Addresses are often bland but equally often provide an overview of the state of a particular branch of engineering at the time; obituaries of members are plentiful, and valuable for putting the contents of the papers and the discussions in context.


Engineers, like any professional group, usually have underlying shared values which need to be recognised and allowed for.  Few engineers' papers take sufficient account of social or economic factors surrounding and enabling their work.  Papers entitled: 'On the Theory and Practice of ....', are commonly woefully thin on the fundamental details of the practice.  Perhaps the greatest failing is the almost total absence of evidence on logistics and management.

Engineering 'magazines'

These were legion: just three are mentioned here.  The Mechanics Magazine is valuable, chiefly for its very early start date of 1820, when engineering publication of any kind was rare in Britain.  The Engineer (from 1856) and Engineering (from 1860) are wonderful sources.  Not only do they cover contemporary developments over a very wide field in reasonable detail and often with superb illustrations, but they provide brief abstracts of the meetings of the Institutions, abstracts of new patents, accounts of engineering matters in Parliament and much more.  Their editorials and correspondence columns venture into such fields as engineering, politics, education, finance, economics and ethics.

They are normally bound in six-monthly volumes, each with an extremely detailed index and are one of the most fertile pastures for serendipity, though at the usual risk of getting side-tracked.  One should perhaps add two warnings: such serendipity requires a certain level of physical strength and fitness as the volumes are very heavy; in many libraries they are so rarely used that a pair of cotton gloves and perhaps even an overall can be useful.

Scope for research

These sources are chiefly useful in placing information from locally generated archival material in a wider context, but there are some areas where useful work could be done using them alone.  They have, for example, been little employed for giving a broad view of the equipment of late 19th century shipyards, which is curious considering the extent of the debate on the efficiency of the British shipbuilding industry during that period.  The 'Wiener Thesis: a reappraisal from the pages of Engineering', could make a useful undergraduate dissertation, as could an evaluation of the effects of the 'high policy' of railway companies on the port services industry.

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