The James B. Francis Lecture on the Built Environment

Group of attendees and speakers at the 2022 James B. Francis Lecture on the Built Environment Image by Edward Hajduk

The James B. Francis Lecture on the Built Environment takes place each fall at the University. Invited speakers are leading scholars, practitioners, or advocates that have made significant contributions to issues related to the built environment (that is, the impact of man-made structures or activities on the natural environment).

The lecture series is named for James B. Francis, a 19th-century engineer who had an instrumental role in shaping the city of Lowell. His numerous inventions and his contributions to landscape and city planning exemplify the layered connections between human interventions and the environment this series hopes to underscore.

This annual event is sponsored by the Architectural Studies Program, the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, and the Department of Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences to foster inter-disciplinary connections for students, faculty and the public. 

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  • James B. Francis headshot Image by University of Massachusetts Lowell, University Library, Center for Lowell History Photograph Collection: LF8475_UML_Francis, James B.

    James B. Francis (1815-1892) spent the majority of his career in Lowell, Massachusetts, “the first successful planned industrial city in America” (NPS). As the Chief Engineer of Locks and Canals, Francis had a pivotal role shaping the city—not just through the construction of a canal system that determined its urban plan, but also through locomotive transportation lines, flood protection systems, fire suppression systems, and gas lighting. His numerous inventions for efficient operation of the mills gained him an international reputation—the Francis Turbine he invented c.1850 is still in use today, most notably in the Three Rivers Gorge Dam in China.

    Born in Oxfordshire, England, Francis immigrated to the United States at the age of 18. Formally unschooled but with a natural propensity for mathematics and mechanics, Francis found work in Connecticut designing railroads under the engineer George Washington Whistler (father of the artist James Abbot McNeill Whistler). Whistler brought the young Francis with him to Lowell in 1834 to work for the owners of the canal system in the city. Whistler himself soon left for an opportunity to build railways in Russia in 1837, and appointed Francis, just 22 years old, as his successor as the Chief Engineer of Locks and Canals. Francis held that position until he retired in 1884.

    Francis’s curiosity and creative energy led him to investigate and find solutions for a wide variety of needs in the built environment. His work in hydraulics is perhaps best known—his formula to calculate the flow of water remain the industry standard and his enormous timber flood gate at Guard Locks off the Merrimack River, known locally as Francis’s Folly, has a storied history of saving the city of Lowell on numerous occasions. Beyond hydraulics, Francis conducted tests to better design cast iron girders; he investigated ways to preserve timber, to install sprinkler systems to control fires, and to install gas lines to light cities. He wrote over 200 technical papers and was a founding member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (and its president in 1880). He was also elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1865. Without doubt, Francis is regarded as one of the most influential civil engineers of the 19th century.


  • Lori Weeden, Nancy Seasholes, Marie Frank, Julie Eaton Ernst at the 2022 James B. Francis Lecture on the Built Environment Image by Ed Brennen
    Left to right: Lori Weeden, Nancy Seasholes, Marie Frank, Julie Eaton Ernst


    Keeping Boston Above Water: Engineering Solutions Then and Now to Make and Protect Boston's Waterfront

    September 28, 2022

    Like many coastal cities, Boston faces imminent challenges as sea levels rise. Boston’s situation has the added complexity, however, that so much of it consists of man-made land: the waterfront, the Back Bay, and Logan Airport, for example, are all the result of construction efforts to enlarge the habitable land of the original small peninsula. What are the implications of rising sea levels for this made land?

    Nancy S. Seasholes, historian and archaeologist, is the acclaimed authority on Boston’s made land. Her groundbreaking books, Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston (MIT Press, 2003) and The Atlas of Boston History (University of Chicago Press, 2019), exhaustively detail the efforts of Bostonians from the Colonial period to the present to create more land. Her talk will highlight the extent of made land, the reasons it is so vulnerable to sea level rise and the different ways the land was made.

    Julie Eaton Ernst, PE (UMass Lowell Civil Engineering, B.S. Eng ’14, M.S. Eng ’17) is a resilience team leader at Weston & Sampson. Julie will speak about integrating climate resilience into the redesign of Moakley Park in South Boston, and the technical challenges given the subsurface of the site and history of land-making. Her talk will address climate change projections for complex urban waterfronts and strategies for implementing resilience on filled tidal lands, including settlement, drainage, underground utilities and contamination.

    Read more about the lecture