The fields of art, economics, law, medicine, philosophy, and politics commonly look into their past. Why is this not as common in the field of engineering?
If you are like me (and you probably are somewhat like me since you're almost certainly an engineer if you are reading this), we do have some things in common as Engineers. And those traits might actually explain why few of us take time to study history in the field of engineering. One trait: Engineers (by their very nature) are often too concerned in the present with making plans for the future, that we rarely think we have need or time to look into the past! But, as with personal genealogy, knowing from where we came can give us a better perspective on who we are and why we are like we are. Let's look back.
Derived from the Latin word "Ingenium" (meaning "natural capacity or invention") the word Engineer was probably born from another related word "engine". The early "engine...er" was largely concerned with making and operating engines of war (catapults, battering rams, etc.) and/or (especially if you were on the other side) devising defenses against these. The roots of "Ingenium" and "Engineer" mean "to do, to act, or to make". While the aim of the scientist is "to know"; the aim of the engineer is "to do". What we do, as "doers", is apply science to our work.
Early on, the engineer's task was to contrive or to build something. (Some things never change). The engineer's method of applying science was so good that engineering became known as "the art of doing with one dollar that which any bungler can do with two". However, from those early beginnings, subtle differences developed in the types of engineering and those differences have created changes.
Civil Engineering is well-recognized as the parent of all other forms of engineering. Soon came cousins (or to keep with the analogy, maybe that should be sons & daughters) named mechanical, chemical, electrical, etc. These were birthed at times when technology and the overall base of knowledge was ever expanding.
Our profession was perhaps first defined in 1828 when the Institution of Civil Engineers was chartered at London, England. Over time, the term "civil" engineer became restricted to those who were engaged with works of a static nature such as roads and tunnels, whereas those concerned primarily with the operation of moving machinery adopted the designation "mechanical" engineer. By 1928, the definition of engineering itself had been refined to be "the professional and systematic application of science to the efficient utilization of natural resources to produce wealth".
Knowing this history, for what will civil engineers be known in 2028? Probably something still very related to its well-breed roots.
- John P. Wier, P.E., R.P.L.S., Historical Chair, Fort Worth Branch ASCE, April 2001