Engineering Careers Background
A lot of brainpower goes into engineering—a lot of knowledge, creativity, thoughtfulness, and pure hard work. Humankind has been “engineering,” so to speak, since we realized we had opposable thumbs that we could use to handle tools. And from that point on we began our ceaseless quest to make, to build, to create tools and systems that helped us live our lives better. There were a lot of mistakes, but engineers and scientists learned from them and built a foundation of engineering laws and principles.
We can trace the development of civilization to the present day through engineering hallmarks like Stonehenge, the Egyptian pyramids, the ancient cities of Greece, the extensive system of roadways and aqueducts built by the early Romans, Europe’s construction of fortresses and cathedrals, the invention of dams, electricity, the automobile, the airplane, the building of canals and cross-continental railways, nuclear energy, putting a man on the moon—and that’s just skimming the surface of the many things engineers are responsible for that built our civilizations and defined how we think of ourselves and our societies.
The rise of the first cities in 3000 BC in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) created a need for engineers, though there was certainly no concept of what an engineer was then. These early “engineers” did not apply scientific principles to their work, but rather they learned by example, from mistakes, and from the urgency of pure need. People relied on “engineers” to address their everyday needs and survival. To protect against enemy attacks, engineers learned to heighten and strengthen building walls through the use of brick (a building material most likely invented by accident). To bring food and water into the city, engineers constructed a system of levees, small canals, and reservoirs.
The first engineer of prominence whose architectural legacy has survived millennia, was the ancient Egyptian builder, Imhotep. He designed and built what is commonly believed to be the first pyramid, the Step Pyramid, around 2650 BC just outside of present-day Cairo, Egypt. Modern engineers marvel at the skills the ancient Egyptians demonstrated in the building of the pyramids. To build a structure as massive and architecturally perfect as a pyramid at a time of very limited building resources (the invention of the wheel was in its infancy—they had nothing like cranes, levels, or any sort of machinery to move the large, heavy stones) was a task of incredible ingenuity. The ancient Egyptians used sledges to transport the stones from the distant quarries where they were mined. The main method they used to move the huge stones (some weighing up to 55 tons) higher up as the pyramid grew was called jacking, which used wedges and levers to slowly but surely move the stones higher and higher.
The engineers of ancient Greece studied more complex principles of geometry and put them to use in advanced architectural designs. These engineers used five basic machines to help them in their building: the wheel, the pulley, the lever, the wedge, and the screw. More complex building methods and different building materials began to appear with the Greeks. They developed a variety of joints, made use of the column as a load reliever, used post-and-beam construction, and they used the arch, although rarely. The Greek engineers employed materials like iron, lead, limestone, and marble. Other Greek contributions to engineering include studies on the lever, gearing, the screw, the siphon, and the concepts of buoyancy, and the invention of force pumps, hydraulic pipe organs, and the metal spring.
Whereas the Greeks were the theorists of early engineering, the Romans were the projectors and administrators. They busily set out to construct many great public works, like building roads, bridges, tunnels, aqueducts, and even plumbing for each city home. Rome’s major concern for establishing a system of civil engineering was to aide its war machine. Military engineers were responsible for building roads and bridges (to better access future conquests, assure quick communications, and protect their empire), and baths (to relax the warriors after battle), and of course, for developing a variety of weaponry. The Roman military engineer’s greatest responsibility, however, was the fortification of army camps. They built all kinds of fortifications, which included walls of varying thickness, height, and shape to better repel would-be attackers.
Modern engineering’s true beginnings are mostly rooted in the 17th and 18th centuries, where mathematical principles and laws of physics began to be understood and developed. Isaac Newton’s groundbreaking research in mathematics and physics was quickly picked up by engineers and put to practical use. Aside from enlightening the world about gravity, Newton’s work in mechanics produced the generalization of the concept of Force, the formulation of the concept of Mass (his First Law), and the principle of Effect and Counter-Effect (his Third Law). Other mathematicians and engineers of the time, enlightened by Newton’s findings, went on to make mathematical discoveries that paved the way for the work of future engineers.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that the first schools of engineering were established. Previously, most young engineers learned their skills by apprenticeships, if they were lucky enough to get one. A French military engineer, Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban, recognized the need to have an actual corps of engineers in the military to study and improve the building of fortifications, bridges, and roads. Shortly thereafter, engineering schools began to appear throughout France, and then the rest of Europe, and finally in the United States. In 1775, the U.S. Continental Congress stated, “That there be one Chief Engineer at the Grand Army . . . [and] that two assistants be employed under him . . . ,” and thus began the United States Corps of Engineers. This new need for engineers prompted the beginning of scientific schools at Harvard (1847), Yale (1861), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1865), and other engineering schools.
Vauban’s plan to educate engineers was largely for military purposes. Armies needed easy ways to get from point A to point B, so roads and bridges had to be built (The Romans, we have seen, did this very well). It was around this time too, that the civil engineer came on to the scene as a separate discipline. When military engineers built roads, bridges, canals, and other public works, they tended to build them only when it served a very specific military purpose. Cities needed better water supplies and sanitation facilities, and local roads that could link smaller communities. As cities grew, they tended to do so in a not-too-orderly fashion, so civil engineers were needed to plan the cities. In 1771, John Smeaton, the first self-proclaimed civil engineer, founded the Society of Civil Engineers with the objective of bringing together like-minded engineers and other men with financial resources to design and build public works.
With the advent of steam power and the industrial revolution at the end of the 18th century, great engineering accomplishments seemed to happen every day— from the steam engine and the large-scale mining of coal, to the cotton gin and new agricultural technology, the world was changing quickly. New processes for manufacturing iron and steel made their use more common in all branches of engineering, which was evidenced by the first suspension bridge, erected by J. Finley in the United States in 1801. This invention made possible the building of bridges in locations where a standard mid-span support bridge could not feasibly be built, thus greatly improving transportation. A suspension bridge is suspended by cable attached to and extending between supports or towers—a modern-day example is the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Over the years suspension bridge technology was improved and they became a common sight throughout the world.
The 19th century marked the dawn of electrical engineering. Many scientists at the time, excited over this new, and most likely profitable, phenomenon, electricity, dove headfirst into all its mysteries and intricacies, making many valuable discoveries. Once these scientists laid down the principles of the field, other engineers, inventors, and scientists put these principles to practical applications, like Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph in 1837, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone in 1876, Thomas Edison’s light bulb in 1878, Nikola Tesla’s electric motor in 1888, and many others. By the early 20th century, much of the infrastructure of modern society as we know it was coming to light.
The first major engineering feat of the 20th century was Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first controlled flight of a powered airplane. Aeronautical engineering, as it came to be known, was a dangerous endeavor at its outset, and early engineers labored for a long period of time without significant success. Gliders were the first airplane design to test the skies and provided engineers with valuable information on aerodynamics. The Wright brothers came up with the idea of fixing a motor to their plane for long distance flight and made several failed (though educational) attempts to take off. Finally, in 1903 they succeeded in flying an engine-powered biplane for 59 seconds. Over the next two years they made more adjustments and tests and eventually ended up selling planes to the U.S. military.
As with previous centuries, it was the military and war that fueled most of our major engineering advancements. The 20th century has been no different. The U.S. and European militaries recognized immediate potential in airplanes and put its engineers to work on making them safer, more maneuverable, faster, and rugged. By 1914, just in time for the first World War, militaries fitted their planes with radios, navigational equipment, and guns. Planes were also designed to haul and drop bombs. European navies invested heavily into submarine research. The German navy, although a latecomer to the submarine, was the early leader in this technology, and during World War I its U-boats were greatly feared by Allied ships at sea.
Fighter plane and submarine design advanced even further by World War II. Military engineers increased the plane’s and sub’s speed, range, and general mechanical abilities to make them easier to learn and operate. By 1942 the German Luftwaffe flew the first real jet plane, which reached speeds of more than 500 miles per hour.
One of this century’s most profound engineering innovations came in the 1930s with nuclear power. In the race to develop the atomic bomb, the U.S. government spearheaded the Manhattan Project to study and develop nuclear power. As nuclear engineers began to realize the awesome potential of nuclear energy, schools were established to study this extremely dangerous new technology and a new branch of engineering was born— nuclear engineering.
In the 1950s, the Cold War brought about fierce technological and military competition between the United States and Russia, necessitating the services of all types of engineers. The exploration of space became another area where engineers sought to demonstrate their country’s technological dominance. In 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world’s first orbiting satellite. The United States countered with its own satellite, Explorer I, in early 1958. In the early 1960s, Russia and America set their sights on the moon and engineers from both countries worked feverishly to be the first to land a man on the moon. And in 1969, the world was awestruck when U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped from his spacecraft onto the rocky surface of the moon.
Even today engineering marvels still abound, from the skyscrapers in our cities, to the artificial heart, to the tiny computer processors in many of the electronics we buy. The rapid speed at which computer technology is progressing is unprecedented. Big news one month in the computer industry is almost ancient history in the following months. Modern society is becoming increasingly automated, as human power is replaced by the never-complaining, never-tiring robot.
According to the 1828 charter of the British Institution of Civil Engineers, engineering is “the art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man.” Most engineers will hold true to this as an accurate definition of their field, with perhaps a few additions. Not much of the philosophy has changed since 1828. What has changed is the scope and method of engineering, which began as an empirical art and has gradually developed into a highly specialized science.