"The underlying principles of the present state of world culture, or civilization as it is usually and erroneously called, rest on engineering."
William Barclay Parsons (1859–1932)
Columbia College 1879, Mines 1882
Chair of Trustees 1917–32
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an era in which civil engineering was transforming the world, William Barclay Parsons stood out by serving his country, his city, and his college. In 1894, he became chief engineer of the New York Rapid Transit Commission, designing the original plan for the Interborough Rapid Transit subway, which opened in 1904. His thorough examinations of Manhattan's topography resulted in his use of the less expensive and more efficient cut-and-cover construction method for the first subway lines. Parsons's engineering firm, today's Parsons Brinckerhoff, Inc., built docks in Cuba and hydroelectric plants across the United States. As a consultant to the Panama Canal Commission, Parsons recommended a canal route across Nicaragua at sea level, but was overruled by U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt. He also served as chief engineer of the Cape Cod Canal, which opened in 1914, and as chief surveyor of China's 1,000-mile route from Hankow to Canton, a line still in use today.