Character and legacy
"Engineers ... are not mere technicians and should not approve or lend
their name to any project that does not promise to be beneficent to man and the advancement of civilization."
Sir John Fowler
There is no doubt that Baker was an engineer of outstanding ability. His practicality and intellectual rigour led to some of the most audacious engineering projects of the nineteenth century and his published papers, as well as his realised projects, influenced the practice of civil engineering throughout the world. It appears that he could take ideas that had been floating in the ether (cantilever bridges, undulating railways) and apply them to projects, where others had not succeeded.
Baker was able to see the bigger picture and his broad vision gave his work longevity. One example is his change of construction arrangements in the building of Egypt's Assiut Barrage
for early completion to the benefit of the country as a whole. However, he also applied himself to the smallest detail, such as insisting on the drilling of all rivet holes on the Forth Rail Bridge
in order to avoid localized stresses. This versatility made him much in demand and his professional advice was sought widely in this country and abroad.
He was also an innovator in raising awareness of engineering, which he did through public lectures at the Royal Institution and various literary and scientific organizations. Using witty images and quoting from literature and history, he managed to convey the excitement of his profession with eloquence and modesty.
Through membership of government and semi-government committees — concerned with such subjects as ordnance, light railways, London's drainage and the strength of steel rails — and contributions to government enquiries, he served the wider community and influenced the thinking of the day. He served as president of the Institution of Structural Engineers (ICE), overseeing the enlargement of its governing body to include representation from UK industrial regions and various colonial countries.
Among the other learned societies with which he was associated are the Royal Society, the British Association, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the Institution of Naval Architects and the Iron and Steel Institute. He was an honorary member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the Royal Institute of British Architects, and honorary degrees were conferred on him by three universities: Cambridge, Edinburgh and Dublin.
Baker's legacy in print is considerable, and the papers he produced earned him distinguished recognition, such as the ICE's George Stephenson Medal (1881), as well as a high reputation for engineering skill and judgement. Other acts of recognition came his way too, including the ICE's Telford Medal (1877), a knighthood (KCMG, 1890), the Institute of France's Prix Poncelet (1890), elevation to Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (1902) and the order of the Mejidieh (1902).
Many of the huge variety of projects associated with his name were undertaken in association with other engineers. Among these are Sir John Fowler and A.C. Hurtzig, both of whom had been his partners, and he was always generous in acknowledging the work of collaborators. He was also responsible for the training of a great many engineers, passing his experience to the next generation, and was a supporter of improvements in engineering education.
He is recognised as one of the first in his profession to make a bridge between theory and practice in engineering, which at the time were tackled separately by, in the first instance, private study, and in the second, practical apprenticeship.
Sir Benjamin Baker died suddenly, from heart failure, on the 19th May 1907 at his home in Bowden Green in Pangbourne, Berkshire. He is buried at Idbury in Oxfordshire (grave of Sir Benjamin Baker
). A memorial window to him can be seen in the north aisle of the nave of Westminster Abbey.
His obituary in the Proceedings of the ICE describes Baker as possessing "cool, quiet judgement and restrained strength". His powers and influence remained unabated to the end, the high regard in which he was held attested to by the close to 90 regional and national obituary notices that appeared at his death.
main references BDCE2
portrait of Baker
courtesy Institution of Civil Engineers