The Rise and Fall of Civil Engineering – courtesy Google’s amazing ngram viewer

I read an astonishing article this afternoon titled ‘Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books‘, published early last year in the journal Science. Based on Google’s effort to digitise all books in all languages, researchers have carried out computational analysis on a corpus of over 5 million books – approximately 4% of all books ever published – to give access to vast amounts of data on word use.

The availability of this data allows researchers to observe cultural trends and then subject them to quantitative investigation – the study of ‘culturomics‘. The paper illustrates fascinating changes in language size and use, and shows how the data is used to draw more socio-cultural conclusions.

Best of all, Google has a nifty tool for presenting the data called the ngram viewer, which has allowed me to do a little culturomics of my own for the field of engineering.

In the early noughties the civil engineering profession in the UK has been concerned about decreasing numbers of UCAS applicants for civil engineering courses. I wanted to know how the printed word had treated civil engineers since the term was coined at the start of the Eighteenth Century.

Looks like we reached our professional zenith during the First World War, and, like trench ladder, the term civil engineer has been in decline ever since. I wondered then if the trend is mirrored by our built environment cousins, the architects. The results are below.

Sounds depressingly familiar, but it looks like the architects have done a good PR job (a good 200 years before the term PR had been invented!)

Other people who have written about this

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Miscellaneous investigation by me

Concrete, Steel, Timber, Iron, Glass

The course of the word recycle

Spot the second world war and the oil crisis?

Rise of the vegetarians

Civil Engineer/ Estate Agent/ Violinist/ Civil Servant

…my profession of choice is not as highly spoken of as the professions in the previous generation in my family.