From late 18th century European publications on technology, it can be seen that European engineers were well in advance of those in Britain academically. Often trained in military or government engineering schools, they relied upon their theoretical knowledge when it came to design. It was very different in Britain, where craft training formed the major part of an engineer’s schooling. Even engineers regarded as academically trained, such as Smeaton or Rennie, had also trained under a craftsman.
The mathematics used for engineering design at this time was simple, in effect just a good understanding of geometry and arithmetic. As the craftsman engineers were some of the country’s brightest men, they could have quickly acquired that which they needed, without specific schooling. This knowledge and training allowed them to build major structures, whose design and limitations were based on their practical knowledge of the materials used, derived from their craft training.
European engineers were much more interested in technical design based on mathematical theory, developing a detailed understanding of the technical limitations of a structure, before they began construction. Such methods became increasingly important from the mid-19th century, as structures increased in size and cost. The introduction of the Limited Liability Act in 1855 would have encouraged such design methods, as investors increasingly required more certainty in the proposed results before investing. The mid-19th century saw mathematics, such as calculus, become more important in design. However, England continued to lag behind the continent in the acceptance of such mathematics, with calculus finally being taught at English universities some forty years after France.
The rise of academic education resulted in a slow decline in the social standing of craftsmen, further enhanced by the closure of technical colleges which had developed to serve the craft industries.