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Monochrome image of Grand Central Station under construction, with tunnels underneath exposed
New York’s Grand Central Terminal under construction, c. 1912. A radical plan by engineer William J. Wilgus shifted a 14-block railyard underground, electrified its tracks, sold the air rights above, and funneled rail traffic into a new two-level terminal – without interrupting service. Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

William J. Wilgus and the Engineer’s Destiny

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This post is coauthored by Joanne Archer, an assistant head in the Manuscript Division Preparation Section, and Josh Levy, historian of science and technology.

In summer 1921, William J. Wilgus was feeling especially indignant. Wilgus, whose brilliant designs for New York’s Grand Central Terminal had helped make him one of the nation’s most prominent civil engineers, was on a crusade for the salvation of his profession. And he believed he was losing.

Writing dramatically to a colleague, Wilgus declared that “the professional man whose work and initiative . . . are the real foundation for the advance of civilization” was under assault from all sides. Engineers, Wilgus insisted, must be “let to work out their destiny free from commercialism.”[1]

What was this threat, this danger to the very foundations of modern civilization? It was an amendment, a seemingly prosaic one, to New York’s engineering licensure requirements, which Wilgus feared would redefine independent engineers like himself right out of existence.

Now available for research in the Manuscript Division reading room, the William J. Wilgus Papers offer extensive documentation of Wilgus’s second career as an engineering consultant. That second act came abruptly for Wilgus, after a violent Bronx train accident in 1907 left 25 dead and nearly 100 injured, and resulted in his immediate resignation as one of New York Central Railroad’s highest-paid executives.[2] Afterwards he roamed the country, creating valuation reports for railroads in the Northeast and Midwest and leaving behind prodigious files of financial data, property reports, blueprints, and drawings, his reputation challenged but his visionary skill still evident. But Wilgus also remained rooted in New York, perched atop its professional societies and eager to cement the engineer’s role as an independent professional, one unbeholden to corporations or banks, urging the city forward in an era of epic urban development.

Typewritten page with handwritten corrections
Undated draft of an engineering license. Box 80, William J. Wilgus Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, state legislators set out to define, regulate, and discipline a whole range of professions, motivated in large part by a desire to “improve the market for professional services” and protect consumers.[3] In 1907, Wyoming became the first state to pass an engineering licensure law. By 1921, nineteen states had laws regulating the practice of engineering. This was in part due to the profession’s increasing prominence in the American labor force. Numbering only 7,000 in 1880, by 1920 the nation boasted more than 136,000 practicing engineers.[4]

As demand for engineering increased and professional associations in other fields multiplied, so too did the desire of many engineers to be seen as professionals. According to historian Edwin Layton, that meant calls for autonomy, collegial control of professional work, and social responsibility.[5]

These were the same qualities Wilgus believed the New York State Senate was violating when, in 1921, it proposed a seemingly minor amendment to an engineering licensure law passed the previous year. In a move Wilgus thought overly cozy with the state’s business interests, and which ultimately caused a dramatic rift between Wilgus and many of his colleagues, legislators proposed allowing corporations and partnerships to be exempt from licensing requirements, and offered a revised definition of “engineer” to match.

Printed title page to published letter
An open letter to New York’s governor Nathan L. Miller, urging him to veto an amendment to the state’s engineering licensure law. Box 80, William J. Wilgus Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The amendment had proponents and opponents within the engineering community, and each petitioned the legislature that spring. In April, Wilgus and four dozen colleagues signed their names to a petition demanding the governor veto the amended bill. They argued the bill discriminated against independent engineers, who were required to pay fees and pass examinations, while allowing “non-engineers – bankers or what-not – under the guise of corporations, unrestricted partnerships and joint stock associations, indirectly to do those very things which the individual non-engineer is prohibited from doing.”[6] Non-engineers who nonetheless provided engineering services, they insisted, created conflicts of interest, reduced the standing of the profession, and allowed for violations of codes of ethics.

The divide that emerged in New York reflected a larger split among engineers nationwide, and a profession undergoing a fundamental reassessment of itself. When the American Engineering Council set out to create model legislation for engineering licensure in 1919, they first found themselves unable to encompass modern engineering within a single definition, and then gave up defining their profession altogether. Courts, commissions, and juries, they reasoned, knew what doctors and carpenters were, so they would know what an engineer was as well.[7]

Wrong. Legislatures began to define engineering on their own, and not always in ways engineers found agreeable. For Wilgus and his allies, the crucial distinction was whether engineering was a profession or a trade, whether engineers were more akin to lawyers or to laborers. They envisioned engineering as “a positive force, serving the good of humanity” or, as Wilgus put it, becoming “animated by an impartial service in instructing, guiding and advising others.”[8] For their opponents, it would do to maintain the status quo – a close alliance between engineers, business, and bureaucracy. No soaring language needed.

The ethical violations Wilgus and his colleagues identified are especially revealing of their vision for engineering’s future. A code of ethics adopted by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1914 forbade lying and slander and other predictable transgressions, but also censured those who “advertise in self-laudatory language, or in any other manner derogatory to the dignity of the profession.”[9]

Advertisement with three-quarter image of large building with clock at center, and advertising text below
An advertisement for Lockwood, Greene & Co. collected by William J. Wilgus, 1921. Wilgus appears to have believed that this seemingly benign ad was excessively self-laudatory or derogatory to the engineering profession. Box 80, William J. Wilgus Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

In a speech probably delivered around 1921, Wilgus was more specific, pairing samples of objectionable advertising with snippets from the constitution and bylaws of the American Institute of Consulting Engineers. In one ad, the construction firm Stone & Weber asserted that their engineers had successfully manufactured many products, and that their service was in demand nationwide. In another, the engineering firm Lockwood, Greene & Co. announced that it had built a handsome structure for The Baldwin Company, which the people of Cincinnati admired.[10] Today, Wilgus’s objections to this sort of advertising seem almost nonsensical, except in the context of an engineer who has become highly defensive, and highly protective of his profession’s dignity.

After lobbing accusations in every direction, Wilgus ultimately lost the battle over licensure and quit the New York State Board of Licensing for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors. His ardor for licensure remained, however, and by 1923, Wilgus appeared to be serving as a guide, as well as a professional reference, to those seeking a New York license.

Researchers can now benefit from the fastidious attention Wilgus paid to professional disputes, railroads spanning from the Northeast to the Midwest, and to groundbreaking engineering projects like the Detroit River Tunnel by examining his papers, now open for research in the Manuscript Division.

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[1] William Wilgus to Harold A. Caparn, June 16, 1921, box 79, William J. Wilgus Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[2] Kurt C. Schlichting, Grand Central’s Engineer: William J. Wilgus and the Planning of Modern Manhattan (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 63.

[3] Marc T. Law and Sukkoo Kim, “Specialization and Regulation: The Rise of Professionals and the Emergence of Occupational Licensing Regulation,” The Journal of Economic History 65, no. 3 (September 2005), 754.

[4] Edwin T. Layton, Jr., The Revolt of the Engineers: Social Responsibility and the American Engineering Profession (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 3.

[5] Layton, The Revolt of the Engineers, 4.

[6] Letter to the Governor of the State of New York Requesting His Veto of the Bill to Amend the Existing Professional Engineers’ License Law, April 14,1921, box 80, William J. Wilgus Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[7] Alfred D. Flinn, “A Study of Definitions of ‘Professional Engineer’ and ‘Engineering,’” July 1, 1920, box 80, William J. Wilgus Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[8] Layton, The Revolt of the Engineers, viii; Letter to the Governor of the State of New York, April 14, 1921, box 80, William J. Wilgus Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[9] “Code of Ethics: American Society of Civil Engineers,” box 80, William J. Wilgus Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[10] William J. Wilgus, untitled speech, box 80, William J. Wilgus Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.



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