We all know the word.  We hear it just about every day.  We see it all the time.


The E in STEM, STEAM, and STREAM stands for engineering.

But do we know what the word actually means?  What is engineering?  What do engineers do?

Of all the letters in STREAM, I think the E has changed more than all the others, growing, evolving, expanding, adding dimensions and details.  I decided to spend some time exploring the meaning of the word engineering, the history of engineering, and just how much the work of engineers influences our day to day lives.

Let’s start at the beginning.  What is the simple, basic definition of the word engineer, if there is such a thing?

According to a dictionary from 1967 (1), an engineer is:

   1:  a man who runs an engine

   2:  person who plans, builds, or manages engines, machines, roads, bridges, canals, railroads, forts, etc.; expert in engineering

   3:  member of a group of men who do engineering work in the army or navy

   1:  v – plan, build, direct, or work as an engineer

   2:  Amer. – manage cleverly; guide skillfully


Another dictionary (2), a year younger, says this:

   1:  one versed in or practicing any branch of engineering

   2:  one who runs or manages an engine; engine-driver

   3:  a manager; inventor; plotter

   4:  a member of the division of an army which constructs forts and bridges, clears and builds roads, etc.


Isn’t it nice that in 1968 it was finally recognized that women shouldn’t be excluded from the definition of engineer?  But neither of these definitions really seem to fit what I think of when I think of an engineer.


For a more modern definition, I went to the internet.

At Merriam-Webster, I found this definition:

 “a person who has scientific training and who designs and builds complicated products, machines, systems, or structures : a person who specializes in a branch of engineering”


That sounds more like what comes to mind when I think about ‘engineer.”


I tried another site, Cambridge Dictionary (4).  There I found this definition:

a person whose job is to design or build machines, engines or electrical equipment, or things such as roads, railways or bridges, using scientific principles


Besides the issue of gender, I noticed one big difference between the older definitions and the modern ones, – the word ‘scientific.’  Today’s engineers have to know and use scientific laws and principles in their work.


Here’s a video which explains what engineers are and some of the things they do:



Here’s another video, created by the National Science Foundation, in which people share their thoughts about engineering and what they would like to see engineers create in the future.



Humans have always been engineers, but until fairly recently, they weren’t called engineers.  Originally the word referred to the designers of military weapons.  Later engineers were “locomotive drivers.”  As a verb the word could mean less honorable things, such as to connive, trick or deceive.  For more information on the history of the word, take a look at the article “The Origin of the Word ‘Engineering,’


Originally there were just engineers – the people who built catapults, floating bridges, assault towers, roads, buildings, bridges, canals, etc.  In the Middle Ages, building engineering advanced with the development of flying buttresses and arches.  By the eighteenth century, civil engineering had become a separate, specialized discipline, focused on building structures and designing cities.  The Industrial Revolution brought about the creation of mechanical engineering.  As scientists learned about electricity, electrical engineering was born.  With studies in chemistry chemical engineering was created.  And today, as scientists and concerned citizens try to understand global warming, environmental engineering has been born.  Hand in hand, science and engineering have developed and grown.  As scientists have discovered and learned the laws of the natural world, engineers have found ways to put the new knowledge to practical use.  Today engineering has grown to include a multitude of degrees and disciplines.

Generally, there are considered to be 5 major categories of engineering, with a multitude of sub-disciplines within each major field.  Here is a list of the major fields of engineering with some of the sub-categories of each:

Civil Engineering:  Architectural, Coastal, Construction, Earthquake, Energy, Environment, Forest, Geotechnical, Highway, Hydraulic, Mining, Municipal, Ocean, Railway, River, Sanitary, Solar, Structural, Sustainable, Traffic, Transport, Utility

Chemical Engineering:  Biochemical, Biomedical, Biomolecular, Biotechnological, Cellular, Corrosion, Food, Genetic, Materials, Metallurgical, Microbial, Molecular, Paper, Petroleum, Pharmaceutical, Plastics, Polymer, Process, Textile, Tissue, Welding

Mechanical Engineering:  Acoustical, Aeronautical, Aerospace, Agricultural, Astronautical, Automotive, Manufacturing, Marine, Mechatronics, Power Plant, Robotics, Sports, Thermal, Wind

Electrical Engineering:  Computer, Data, Electronics, Hardware, Information, Mechatronics, Microelectronic, Nanoengineering, Network, Optical, Power, Telecommunications, Web

Industrial Engineering:  Apparel, Component, Financial, Fire Protection, Manufacturing, Safety, Supply Chains, Systems


Now we know that the first engineers were not actually called engineers, but do we know who they were?  The first person in history to be recognized as an engineer was the Egyptian chancellor Imhotep, who designed and led the building of Djoser’s Step Pyramid at Ṣaqqārah, Egypt.  There were countless engineers before him, but their names and achievements have been lost to history.  There have been countless engineers since, and many of them have made their marks in history.  Others are household names, having influenced the advancement of human society and technology.


According to the site, Interesting Engineering, some of the most famous engineers that we know about are:


Isambard Kingdom Brune – Great Western Railway and more

Leonardo da Vinci

George Stephenson – Father of the Railway system in  the UK

Robert Stephenson – designed much of the UK railway system

Elon Musk – founder of SpaceX, Tesla Motors, and SolarCity

Burt Rutan – designed the Voyager aircraft, the first plane to fly non-stop around the Earth

Fazlur Rahman Khan – known as the Father of the Modern Skyscraper

Nikola Tesla – electricity, x-ray, radio, induction motor

Nikolaus Otto – contributed to the internal combustion engine

Charles Babbage – contributed to the first computers

George Westinghouse Jr. – railway air brake & electrical advancements

Thomas Alva Edison – phonograph, motion picture camera, light bulb, and more

Gottlieb Wilhelm Daimler – pioneer of the internal combustion engine, automobile

Lee de Forest – sound on film recording, motion pictures, radio

Sir Frank Whittle – turbojet engine

Tommy Flowers – first programmable electronic computer

Gustave Eiffel – Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty,

Alexander Graham Bell – telephone

James Watt – contributed to the steam engine

Neil Armstrong – aerospace engineer

Hedy Lamarr – spread-spectrum communications that lead to wireless communication

Henry Ford – assembly line, mass production

Steve Wozniak – personal computer

Guglielmo Marconi – wireless telegraphy

James Clerk Maxwell – theory of electromagnetic energy

Soichiro Honda – automobile industry

Jack St. Clair Kilby – first integrated circuit

Oliver Heaviside – telecommunications, mathematics, science

Orville & Wilbur Wright – modern airplane wing, 3 axis control system


The American Society of Mechanical Engineers offers a list of famous women engineers:

Kate Gleason – first woman elected to membership to the ASME

Nancy D. Fitzroy – ASME’s first female president

Christina Koch – astronaut

Katie Weimer – medical technology

Gwynne Shotwell – aerospace

Evelyn Wang – education

Kimberly Bryant – Black Girls Code

Melonee Wise – robotics

Ramille Shah – tissue and organ engineering

Mary Barra – automobile

Danielle Merfeld – renewable energy

Limor Fried – software pioneer


I wonder what new fields of engineering will develop in the next decades and centuries.  What amazing things that we can only imagine today will be household toys, tools, and appliances for the next generation?  I can’t wait to see!



1 – Thorndike-Barnhart Comprehensive Desk Dictionary, edited by Clarence L. Barnhart, c1967, pg 273

2 – Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of the English Dictionary Volume 1, Albert H. Marckwardt, Chief Editor, c1968, pg 420

3 – Merriam-Webster Dictionary:  https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/engineer

4 – Cambridge Dictionary: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/engineer


Interesting Engineering:  https://interestingengineering.com/the-origin-of-the-word-engineering

National Science Foundation:  https://youtu.be/FAJGx3zP-Eo

Online Etymology Dictionary:  https://www.etymonline.com/word/engineer

What are the Different Types of Engineering?:  https://www.bestcolleges.com/blog/types-of-engineering/

The 20+ Greatest Engineers of All Time:  https://interestingengineering.com/the-20-greatest-engineers-of-all-time

Ten Influential Women in Engineering:  https://www.asme.org/topics-resources/content/10-influential-women-in-engineering

Britannica: Engineering:  https://www.britannica.com/technology/engineering