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