According to eweek.org, February 19 to the 25th is National Engineers Week. The title is ironically appropriate considering our well-known inability to compose a grammatical sentence. I would have thought “Engineers” is possessive, so I would call this National Engineers’ Week.
Though perhaps we’re weak in the literary arts, engineers have been the force creating civilization for thousands of years. L. Sprauge de Camp’s fascinating book “The Ancient Engineers” mentions that the wall of the city of Memphis (in Egypt, not Tennessee) was the first recorded engineering project. 5000 years ago an unknown engineer created this large structure to defend the city King Mena built.
De Camp claims the first engineer known by name was Imhotep, pyramid builder, doctor, and much more. He lived about 2500 BC.
For thousands of years engineers practiced little other than architecture and civil engineering. They built canals, wells, buildings and defensive fortifications.
Construction materials, then engineers’ prime resource, were plentiful for millennia. But by the 18th century England came to dominate the high seas. They built so many ships – the so-called “Wooden Walls” that protected that island – that their supply of trees was nearly exhausted. Coal became an alternative fuel for heating and cooking, leading to the dense London fogs of yore.
But coal is deep in the ground. Mines flood. Newcomen invented the steam engine primarily as a pump to empty mines. James Watt perfected that engine, and initiated the beginnings of the industrial revolution. That period reshaped the Western world, and would not have been possible without mechanical power.
Working largely from experience and an eye for strength rather than math and handbooks these mostly self-trained people extended their reach and built factories, iron ships, and more. According to Henry Petroski the 1800s were known as the “great age of the engineer,” despite alarmingly-frequent bridge collapses and flooding tunnels. Engineers were rock stars, feted and admired.
Today the luster is gone. I’m appalled that 100 years ago “engineer” was a title of grandeur and importance, but today people are confused; some think we drive trains. It’s a title of contention: in some jurisdictions it’s quite illegal to use the term unless one has particular academic credentials.
It’s a field beset with trials and tribulations. We’re no longer superstars. Management views us as replaceable cogs, skilled but as interchangeable as dentists.
Yet we’re still the folks who build the world. Some of our creations are revolutionary, others are mere baubles. Without us, life on this planet would collapse to an agrarian society incapable of supporting most of us. Think about that! Engineers are the force battling the entropy that, left unchecked, will kill billions .
Despite a strange career that has included titles of CEO, Board Member, VP, and more, the one I’m most proud of, the one I always use on tax returns and in casual chats with friends and new acquaintances, is “Engineer.” Despite all of the problems our career now faces, it’s still a hell of a time to be an engineer.
What do you think?
Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. Join him for his “Better Firmware Faster” seminar in Dallas and Denver in April. Contact him at . His website is .
You hit the grammar issue right, again. Is the Tower of Bable time upon us?
An engineer is not a profession, but a lifestyle; at times manifesting by unbearable heaviness of being (modified Kundera's idea).
Alas, in Europe, engineers get title “Ing.” piggy-backed after their last name automatically after finishing university. And, at many times it is still as respected title, even in civilian life, as Dr.
Americans sometimes take their pragmatism too far.
Hail to engineers!
The Greatest One of them all–you did not mention: Leonardo Da Vinci
– Roger Lynx
Jack Replies Roger, you're right about Leonardo. I'll never forget a Star Trek episode where Leonard Vincent, a scientist on the Enterprise, gets accidently send back in time, and stuck there. The crew is left wondering if he became Leonardo.
While some engineers may be the “force creating civilisation”, some of us are also the ones destroying it. Without engineers, politicians and generals would still be fighting with their fists. Without engineers, the planet wouldn't be filling up with discarded MP3 players and PC motherboards. Engineers design factories which (intentionally or unintentionally) spill garbage into the atmosphere and water supply. It is, ultimately, the engineers who compel us to use all oil and uranium for energy, instead of cleaner, simpler resources that nations wouldn't squabble over. Like doctors, engineers sometimes have the power of life and death in their hands. We all need to take this responsibility more seriously, by refusing to design weapons and environmentally-irresponsible products.
Engineers should be proud of their profession. Why?
Take for example the Medical and Dental professions. All of the tools, medicines, and various prosthetics & orthotics rely on the Chemical, Electrical, and Mechanical Engineering professions. How do you think safe drugs are made, or how dental and surgical tools are made to be thin, yet strong? How do you think the various bio-monitoring equipment is made. Doctors don't make them, engineers do. If it were not for engineers, how would doctors and dentists do their work? It takes a chemical & materials engineer to design safe material to be used in your mouth, strong dental tools that don't break under pressure, and filling material that will last 20 years. Laser light is now used to help “cure” the adhesive used to secure crowns to your teeth. Who made this adhesive safe, an engineer. Who designed the dental laser, and engineer. Eye surgery is done with lasers and who made this, engineers.
The medical and dental professions are just one example of a service entity that relies on the engineering profession. I’ll bet almost all other professions rely on the engineering profession in some fashion or another. In fact, the engineering profession relies on itself!
– Steve King
I am very proud of being an Engineer! I have worked very hard for and for maintaining the title as Engineer.
However: “Management views us as replaceable cogs, skilled but as interchangeable as dentists.”
This is indeed quite true…however I would not have used such a strong noun as dentists…I think farmworker, or berry-picker would have been more appropriate.
– Ken Wada
My employer just started to recognize engineers during National Engineers’ week. Just yesterday we had a banquet lunch with a lot of presentations, awards, and activities. Tomorrow we are having a contest to see who can dress the best like an engineer of the 50s. Without a doubt, it is a great time to be an engineer. We also have future hope. I had the privilege of coaching a FLL (First Lego League) team that made it to the state finals. For those who don’t know, FLL sponsors a competition for kids 9-14 to build and program a Lego robot to perform various tasks. They also had to give technical and research presentations to a panel of judges. Little did the little ones know, but they were doing what engineers do every day: Research, Presentation, Design, Build, Test, and Problem solving. From what I could tell all 300 kids at the state tournament loved every minute of it. We as engineers need to get involve more in the community to derail some of the engineering myths.
Still proud to be an engineer, even though what we do is often mis-understood by society, management, and even our spouses!
Enjoyed your Embedded Pulse article on “Engineering in the Seventies”. I caught the tail end of “Computer-less Engineering” at a big Aerospace firm in the early 80's. I can relate to the good old blueprint repro machine. To mangle Rambo's quote: “I Love the smell of ammonia in the morning!”
I enjoyed the Natl Engineers Week article. I was born an engineer – second generation, and my child will be one too.
I have a simple test: define *all* of the engineers who are responsible for the shirt on your back. You are allowed to go as many levels deep as desired (ie the engineers who make the tools to make the tools, etc). When you throw in all of the types, including transport, mining, oil, harvesting, IT, stores, sewing and cutting and weaving, boxing, and the rest of the steps required to grow, clean, weave, fabricate, pay/sell, measure, and clean, you can stop counting at 200..300 types with plenty more to count.
“Like doctors, engineers sometimes have the power of life and death in their hands. We all need to take this responsibility more seriously, by refusing to design weapons and environmentally-irresponsible products. ”
What on earth are you worrying about ? The standard of living is greater on this planet than it has ever been. London's air is cleaner than it has been for the last few centuries because of technological innovation.
In Canada, the term “Engineer” is protected by provincial law. Microsoft has had some trouble in the past with the use of “Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer”. They are now “Experts”.
To be an “Engineer” you belong to the provincial association and be a Professional Engineer.
Being an Engineer is protected like being a doctor (MD) or lawyer. Being a professional engineer has ethical responsibilities of course.
– Tim Flynn
While you may have the title “Engineer”, many have been reduced to recipe-following technicians.
Aeronautical enginners design missiles, chemical enginners design the propellant systems, mechanical engineers design the control systems, electonics engineers design the guidance systems. Civil engineers design the targets!
Jono, you miss my point; I wasn't suggesting all engineers are evil maniacs, just that some of them put a fat paypacket and a well-equipped lab above their morals and/or professional judgement (I wonder how much the guy who invented VX was paid to bury his conscience?). And London's air is “cleaner than it's ever been” not because of technical innovation but because the industries that used to cause the mess have simply been moved to China and India, where lives are worth less and pollution controls are less troublesome.