Coastal Engineering in Medaeval, Renaissance and Modern Times Up to the Nineteenth Century

Another excerpt from the Coastal Engineering Manual on this subject:

I-3-4.  Modern Age

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, a long hiatus in coastal technology and engineering prevailed throughout most of the European world with a few exceptions.  Little is recorded on civil engineering achievements during the Dark and Middle Ages.  The threat of attack from the sea caused many coastal towns and their harbours to be abandoned.  Many harbours were lost due to natural causes such as rapid silting, shoreline advance or retreat, etc.  The Venice lagoon was one of the few populated coastal areas with continuous prosperity and development where written reports document the evolution of coastal protection works, ranging from the use of wicker faggots to reinforce the dunes to timber piles and stones, often combined in a sort of crib work.  Protection from the sea was so vital to the Venetians, that laws from 1282 to 1339 did not allow anyone to cut or burn trees from coastal woods, pick out mussels from the rock revetments, let cattle upon the dikes, remove sand or vegetation from the beaches or dunes, or export materials used for shore protection (Franco 1996).

In England, coastal engineering works date back to the Romans, who recognized the danger of floods and sea inundation of low-lying lands.   On the Medway, for example, embankments built by the Romans as sea defence remained in use until the 18th century (Palmer and Tritton Limited 1996).  The low-lying lands, consisting of recently-deposited alluvial material, were exceeding fertile but were also vulnerable to flooding from both run-off and storm surges.  In the Middle Ages, the Church became instrumental in reclaiming and protecting many marshes, and monks reclaimed portions of the Fylde and Humber estuaries.  In 1225, Henry III constituted by Charter a body of persons to deal with the question of drainage (Keay 1942).

Across the North Sea, the Friesland area of the Netherlands had a large and wealthy population in the period 500 – 1000 A. D., and increasing need for agricultural land led to building of sea dikes to reclaim land that previously was used for grazing (Bijker 1996).  Water boards developed in response to the need for a mutual means to coordinate and enforce dike maintenance.  These boards represent some of the earliest democratic institutions in the Netherlands.

Engineering and scientific skills remained alive in the east, in Byzantium, where the Eastern Roman empire survived for six hundred years while Western Rome decayed.  Of necessity, Byzantium had become a sea power, sending forth fleets of merchant ships and multi-oared dromonds (swift war vessels) throughout the Black Sea and Mediterranean.  When the weary soldiers of the first crusades reached Byzantium’s capital city, Constantinople, in 1097, they were amazed and awed by its magnificence, sophistication, and scientific achievements.  Constantinople was built on the hills overlooking the Golden Horn, a natural bay extending north of the Bosporus.  Marble docks lined the waterfront, over which passed the spices, furs, timber, grain, and the treasures of an empire.  A great chain could be pulled across the mouth of the Golden Horn to prevent intrusion by enemy fleets.  A series of watch towers extended along the length of the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus, and the south shore of the Black Sea, and the approach of an enemy fleet could be signalled to the emperor within hours by an ingenious code using mirrors by day and signal fires by night (Lamb 1930).

The Renaissance era (about XV – XVI centuries) was a period of scientific and technologic reawakening, including the field of coastal engineering.  While the standards for design and construction remained those developed primarily by the Romans, a great leap in technology was achieved through the development of mechanical equipment and the birth of the hydraulic sciences including maritime hydraulics (Franco 1996).

“The Italian School of Hydraulics was the first to be formed and the only one to exist before the middle of the 17th century” (Rouse and Ince 1963).  Leonardo da Vinci (1465-1519), with his well-known experimental method, based on the systematic observation of natural phenomenon supported by intellectual reasoning and creative intuition, could be considered the precursor of hydrodynamics, offering ideas and solutions often more than three centuries ahead of their common acceptance.  Some of his descriptions of water movement are qualitative, but often so correct, that some of his drawings could be usefully included in a modern coastal hydrodynamics text.  The quantitative definition and mathematical formulation of the results were far beyond the scientific capabilities of the era. Even so,  da Vinci was probably the first to describe and test several experimental techniques now employed in most modern hydraulic laboratories.  To visualize the flow field, he used suspended particles and dyes, glass-walled tanks, and movable bed models, both in water and in air. The movement from kinematics to dynamics proved impossible until the correct theory of gravitation was developed, some two centuries latter by Sir Isaac Newton (Fasso 1987).  The variety of hydro kinematics problems dealt with in da Vinci’s notebooks is so vast that it is not possible to enumerate them all in this brief review.  In the 36 folios (sheets) of the Codex Leicester (1510), he describes most phenomena related to maritime hydraulics.  Richter (1970) provides an English translation of da Vinci’s notebooks (Franco 1996).  The scientific ideas of the Italian Renaissance soon moved beyond the confines of that country, to the European countries north of the Alps.

I-3-5.  Military and Civil Engineer Era

After the Renaissance, although great strides were made in the general scientific arena, little improvement was made beyond the Roman approach to harbour construction.   Ships became more sea-worthy and global navigation became more common.  With global navigation came the European discovery of the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, and other areas of the world, soon followed by migration and colonization.  Trade developed with previously unreachable countries and new colonies.  France developed as the leader in scientific knowledge.  The French “Génie” officers, who, along with their military task, were also entrusted with civilian public works, are reportedly the direct ancestors of modern civil engineers. Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban  (1633-1707) was a builder of numerous fortresses and perfected the system of polygonal and star shaped fortifications.  His most eminent public works project was the conversion of Dunkirk into an impregnable coastal fortress.  Apart from the construction of several forts, there were extensive harbour and coastal works, including the excavation of canals and harbour basins, the construction of two long jetties flanking the entrance channel, and the erection of storehouses and workshops.  A great lock, a masterpiece of civil engineering, was built at the entrance to the Inner Harbour.  Vauban himself designed and supervised the lock construction.  Unfortunately, no more than 30 years after its completion, the fortress was destroyed as a consequence of the Spanish War of Succession.  Vauban’s projects provide a good example of engineering methods and lucidity.  They consisted of an explanatory memorandum, several drawings, and a covering letter.  The memorandum had four sections:  (1) general background of the scheme; (2) detailed descriptions of the different parts, with references to the drawings;  (3) cost estimates;  (4) features and advantages of the work.  It was during this time that the term “Ingenieur” was first used in France, as a professional title for a scientifically-trained technician in public service.

While France enjoyed a leading position in Europe with regard to exact sciences and their applications to technical problems, a social and economic revolution later known as the “Industrial Revolution” was taking place in England.  The riding-horse and the packhorse gave way to the coach, the wagon and the barge.  Hard roads and canals replaced the centuries old soft roads and trails, dusty in dry weather and mud-bound during rains (Straub 1964).  Steam power allowed industry to be concentrated in factories that required continuous supply of raw materials and export of manufactured goods.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, advances in navigation and mathematics, the advent of the steam engine, the search for new lands and trade routes, the expansion of the British Empire through her colonies, and other influences, all contributed to the revitalization of sea trade and a renewed interest in port works.  As the volume of shipping grew, more vessels were needed and as the dimensions of the new vessels became larger,increased port facilities were necessary.  Ports of the world experienced growing pains for the first time since the Roman era, and, except for the interruption caused by two world wars, port needs continue to grow (Quinn 1972).

References for this are the same as the preceding sections, except to add the following:

  • Bijker, E. W.  1996.  History and Heritage in Coastal Engineering in the Netherlands.  History and Heritage of Coastal Engineering, N. C. Kraus, ed., Coastal Engineering Research Council, American Society of Civil Engineers, Reston, VA, pp. 390 – 412.
  • Fasso, C. A.  1987. “Birth of hydraulics during the Renaissance period,” Hydraulics and Hydraulic Research; a Historical Review, IAHR, G. Garbrecht Editor, Balkema, pp 55-79
  • Keay, T. B.  1942.  Coast Erosion in Great Britain, General Question of Erosion and Prevention of Damage; and the Drainage of Low-Lying Lands.  Shore and Beach, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 66 – 68.
  • Lamb, H.  1930.  The Crusades, Iron Men and Saints, Doubleday, Doran & Co., Garden City, NY.
  • Palmer, R., and Tritton Limited (eds.).  1996.  History of Coastal Engineering in Great Britain.  History and Heritage of Coastal Engineering, N. C. Kraus, ed., Coastal Engineering Research Council, American Society of Civil Engineers, Reston, VA, pp. 214 – 274.
  • Richter, J. P.  1970.  The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Dover Publishing, New York, NY.
  • Rouse, H. and Ince, S.  1963. History of Hydraulics, Dover, NY.
  • Straub, Hans.  1964.  A History of Civil Engineering, English Translation by Erwin Rockwell, The M.I.T. Press, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 258 p.

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