Railway mania was the name given to a new kind of craze at the end of the 19th century. It wasn’t a mania that was physical in nature, but instead related to the excitement and frenzy caused by rail travel. Looking back, the term[1] might apply equally to the ‘manic’ construction of railways which took place during the larger part of the 19th century. Britain built the first railway line in 1825 and by 1878, the length of railway track worldwide had extended to 321,272 kilometres. The absolute leaders in this were the United States, where 128,187 kilometres had been laid, followed in Europe by Germany, Great Britain and France.[2]   

In the Netherlands, the strong desire to build railways only began to pick up speed after 1860. In that year, the Dutch government and parliament decided to fund an extension of the rail network, which at the time amounted to only 335 kilometres.[3] A few years later it was decided that private companies would be responsible for running the system. The huge task of constructing and operating the railways became an important source of income for a new generation of engineers who were graduating from the Delft school of engineering.[4]    

In the Netherlands, the changes involved much more than the addition of track and locomotives: the complete infrastructure – overland and on the water – was taking shape. The entire administrative system was reorganised from top to bottom.[5] In addition, educational reforms in 1863 resulted in a new type of school: the Hoogere Burgerschool (HBS), or ‘Higher Civic School’. Over the course of five years, the HBS gave boys from wealthy, middle class backgrounds – girls were originally not admitted – a solid education to prepare for their future professional careers. [6] A school-leaving certificate gave admission to engineering studies in Delft.

Everyone in their Sunday best posing alongside a goods train at Abcoude station, end of 19th century. (source: Stadsarchief Amsterdam/Jacob Olie)

Johan and Jacobus

It was no coincidence that the early beginnings of the current Royal HaskoningDHV date back to this boom in economic and technological activity. In fact, the history of the engineering firm begins with the life stories of two boys who were then growing up in the Netherlands: Johan van Hasselt from Sneek (b. 5 May 1850) and Jacobus de Koning from Voorschoten (b. 9 June 1855).

Historical sources do not tell us whether Johan van Hasselt went to an HBS. It is certain however, that Jacobus de Koning attended the HBS in Haarlem at around the age of twelve. There, De Koning was taught bookkeeping, commerce, modern languages, mathematics, physics and chemistry. After his school-leaving exams, he enrolled as a first-year student at the Polytechnische School in Delft in 1872. He wanted to become a civil engineer.[7] Johan van Hasselt had just graduated from there in the very same subject. Their paths probably never crossed. 


(l) Johan van Hasselt (1850-1917) (r) Jacobus de Koning (1855-1906) (source: company archives Royal HaskoningDHV)

They were exciting times. Because of developments in mathematics and statistics, scientific principles became based on ‘prediction through calculation’ instead of on ‘chance and experience’. The mood of apathy that characterised the beginning of the 19th century had been replaced by optimism and a desire for improvement, directly inspired by scientific progress and the introduction of machinery. 

In the Netherlands, it was the bourgeoisie who were motivated most strongly by this desire for improvement. Van Hasselt and De Koning’s choice of study illustrates the extent to which they were children of their age. After all, engineers were considered architects of progress, do-gooders to the core. In the words of De Koning, “the goal that every engineer has or should at least have in mind is raising the material prosperity of society”.[8] 

This may sound very impressive, but in the early 1870s, it was not as if large numbers of young men were enrolling and graduating in Delft. In 1870, there were only 171 trainees at the Polytechnische School. Five years later there were still only 263 students, 127 of whom were trainee civil engineers.[9]  
As soon as they had qualified, these engineers followed a familiar route: the majority were employed in public works, for example in the construction of railways, the reclamation of land or – in government service too – in the normalisation[10] of rivers. 

De Koning also followed this path. Immediately after graduation in 1876, he started working as a ‘clerk of works’ for Rijkswaterstaat[11] in Nijmegen. Aged twenty-one, he was responsible for measuring the flow of water in rivers.[12]
Five years before, Johan van Hasselt had chosen a different path, as he “felt more attracted to private, rather than public service, and took up a position on the Nijmegen to Tilburg railway, which had won a private concession and was still at an early stage of planning.”[13] He moved to Nijmegen in 1876.

Nijmegen was also the place where the two engineers met for the first time in 1877. The city was a perfect example of the ‘march of progress’: at that moment the old city walls were being pulled down and the river Waal normalised.[14] By 1879, a railway bridge and a new station had been added. 
A close friendship quickly developed between the two engineers. Without working together professionally, they spontaneously discussed all kinds of technical topics, and often, De Koning would accompany “Van Hasselt during his measuring activities or other fieldwork”.[15]   

The riverside quay along the Waal in Nijmegen with steam packets and railway bridge - symbols of a new age, ca. 1900. (source: Regionaal Archief Nijmegen, F52154)
Few workers, many machines in the construction of foundation work in Houthavens, Amsterdam, 1897. (source: Stadsarchief Amsterdam/Jacob Olie)

Solving problems

Johan van Hasselt was to become a busy man. The private railway company for which he worked was not a financial or organisational success. This led to work regularly being halted. Van Hasselt began to take on private assignments “of a technical nature” and the number of these increased. Eventually, when the railway company was reorganised, he was asked to come back, but he preferred to dedicate himself entirely to his own private civil engineering projects. 

In the meantime, Jacobus de Koning had exchanged his administrative work with Rijkswaterstaat for a job with the Staatsspoorwegen, the state railways. In 1879 he married Marie van den Bosch, a woman who came from a family of high standing, and moved into a house in a wealthy neighbourhood in Rotterdam. De Koning was working on the Rotterdam to Hook of Holland railway line. He was bitterly disappointed with this job. He was bored, had fundamental doubts about a future career in engineering and, to do something useful, he started learning Italian and Spanish in his spare time: “in less than no time, thanks to his excellent memory, he overcame one of the major obstacles to Spanish, the irregular verbs”.[16] He gave serious thought to devoting his future to language and literature. 

He decided to ask the advice of his friend Van Hasselt about this dilemma. Van Hasselt believed that it would be a loss for the engineering profession if De Koning turned his back on it and at the same time hit upon an idea. If De Koning became his partner, he suggested, they could shift mountains of work together! The two gentlemen lost no time: “De Koning immediately discussed the matter with Van Hasselt and in the space of a few hours they had agreed a deal”[17].

Van Hasselt’s letter to Stork with the announcement of his new partner, fellow engineer J. de Koning, and the name of their firm, 15 October 1881. (source: company archives Royal HaskoningDHV)


The firm was established in Nijmegen in late 1881 under the name of J. van Hasselt & De Koning: the two partners sent a series of letters to their business contacts announcing their news. They worked from the home of Johan van Hasselt at Hertogsteeg 111 18]
Setting up an engineering firm might seem unexceptional today, but at that time it was quite revolutionary. The business adopted the principle of carrying out “purely scientific and technical work”, specifically ruling out working as an agency which would represent other businesses.[19]  

Nijmegen street scene with carriage and – modern – telegraph pole, ca. 1895. (source: Regionaal Archief Nijmegen, D91)

They wrote: “… Regarding the second point, we operate, at least for the time being, exclusively within the technical and scientific scope of our profession and not in the field of commerce. Consequently, we have no agencies, neither are we seeking any, however, reserving the right to appoint a single agency of high standing, should the situation arise. The reason for this should be easy for you to understand: by appointing agencies one is sacrificing, to a greater or lesser extent, one’s independent status as a consulting engineer and we should only encumber ourselves with this if such a large commission was promised as would warrant a change in our assumed standpoint.”[20]

They were an exception: of the 550 engineers in the Netherlands who had qualified in Delft, only a few worked independently. Besides, most engineers considered working as a self-employed engineer only as a temporary option and soon went back to paid employment in the private or public sector. 

It soon became clear to Van Hasselt and De Koning that, from a commercial point of view, they had found a golden and lasting formula: their talents proved a perfect match, “in a manner which might be considered unique”[21] According to one contemporary, Van Hasselt was a man who preferred using his “fine mathematical eye” and skill in detailing for ‘the good’. By all accounts, De Koning was more commercially and less technically minded, and would develop his competence as an economist, with an inclination for ‘the functional’.[22]

Steam in practice

The two Nijmegen-based engineers worked for a number of clients in the east of the Netherlands, primarily on hydraulic works. For example, they created designs for steam-powered pumping stations and dyke-reinforcement projects, wrote reports on water drainage channels and, for many years, were involved in the normalisation of the Oude IJssel river.[23]   

Steam-powered machines were used in this period not only for the construction of many waterway management works: first and foremost, they were the driving force behind new and systematic methods of polder drainage.[24] For the design and construction of steam-powered pumping stations, the water authorities approached engineers, such as Van Hasselt and De Koning.[25] They then organised the entire process of work, from design to execution. 
Although there were more than enough machine factories in those days in the Netherlands and in Germany too, the two Nijmegen-based engineers often chose to use the steam engines made by Gebr. Stork & Co. in Hengelo. This was probably influenced by Van Hasselt being a loyal backer of ‘Dutch Industry’ and he enjoyed good relations with Stork.[26]

Building plan drawn by Van Hasselt and De Koning with cross-sections of the scoop-wheel pumping station at Arkemheen. The substantially sized steam boiler can be clearly seen, 1882. (source: Gelders Archief, 1971 Zeepolder en polderdistrict Arkemheen)

Lancashire boiler manufactured by Stork with its constructor. This type of boiler had two flues for the production of additional steam. Ca. 1905. (source: Historisch Centrum Overijssel, Storkcollectie)

Professionalisation of the firm

The two friends’ business flourished and this growth was clearly noticed by neighbouring residents in Nijmegen: it is reported that the engineers were constantly seen travelling to and fro in carriages for visits to work locations in the surroundings.[27]   
Although they had their own personnel and an organised office life, Johan van Hasselt and Jacobus de Koning still carried out a huge amount of the administrative work themselves.[28] In the six-day working week with a nine-hour working day, the men took care of correspondence, did all the accounts and held meetings with clients and contractors. But above all, they continued to design and carry out (strength) calculations. Two contemporary books which have survived gives a fantastic insight into the way in which the office worked to provide independent advice. 
One book contains a huge collection of material and components, with specifications and current cost prices. The second book, also hand-written, is filled with the latest examples of international engineering innovations. Listed alphabetically, engineering constructions, such as bridges (in many different varieties), cremation furnaces, paint and the Panama Canal were discussed or evaluated in detail. Not only do the books give an impression of how the business followed all the latest developments and increased its engineering know-how[29], they show above all how thoroughly and systematically Van Hasselt and De Koning dedicated themselves to their greatest work, that of building their own independent engineering firm!


About this project

In October 2021 Royal HaskoningDHV will celebrate its 140th birthday. To mark this milestone, we have commissioned a series of striking stories highlighting key moments in the firm’s history. We are proud of our heritage and this is a great opportunity to share our stories with a wider audience. From January to October 2021, we will publish a new story each month.