To be an Engineer

Prepared and edited by Dan H. Pletta, P.E.
With pertinent suggestions from many other engineering professionals for The Order of the Engineer, Inc.


To be an engineer is an exhilarating and a rewarding experience. This experience can last a lifetime. Engineers understand technology. They make things work. They are constantly devising and introducing newer technologies that improve living standards as they maintain and operate older ones on which civilization depends.

Most people are not engineers and regard technology as magic-black magic to be distrusted cynically, or white magic to be accepted blindly. Since technology may be used-or misused-by people, its control and guidance should include those who understand it. That professional responsibility, however, involves both ethical obligations and challenging opportunities.

As a young engineering graduate, your interest may lie in such exotic developments as space exploration or artificial intelligence or it may, instead, lie in more traditional practice like production or construction. In either event, society will depend on you for public safety, health and welfare, since these are mandated by engineering ethical codes.

There will be unlimited opportunities to serve and to innovate. You also will need to assume responsible professional obligations to society and to yourself as you continue to learn for a lifetime. Before long you will fully appreciate the wisdom of an eminent mining engineer, the late President Herbert Hoover, who said, "...The engineer looks back at the unending stream of goodness which flows from his successes with satisfactions that few professionals may know. And the verdict of his fellow professionals is all the accolade he wants."

Since you have chosen to be an engineer, let The Order of the Engineer welcome you to that higher calling and rewarding profession.

This material describes 1) how the professional role of engineers has changed, 2) how it now requires them to participate in guiding technology as it grows in size and complexity, and 3) how the technological impact of their practice enhances society's political institutions as well as its living standards. However, before these topics are discussed it seems appropriate first to consider the origin and meaning of the title "engineer."

The Engineering Title

The term "engineer" first entered common usage for the more successful builders and artisans late in the 18th Century when the Industrial Revolution began. It was only after the renaissance of knowledge, beginning in the 14th Century, that a scientific foundation was established to replace the trial and error methods of earlier engineering practices.

One of the earliest definitions of engineering was developed by Thomas Tredgold (1788-1829), a famous engineer-architect and writer, shortly after the Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE) of Great Britain was formed in 1818. His definition, "The art of directing the great forces of power in nature for the use and convenience of man, " was adopted and appears in all ICE publications. Professor Hardy Cross (1885-1959), in a book of his talks entitled Engineers and Ivory Towers, noted that the use and convenience of man "are not always identical. Engineering does not tell men what they should want or why they want it. Rather it recognizes a need and tries to meet it." Thus, Watt saw the need for steam engines and Bell the need for telephones. Innovation and service are essential components of engineering practice. It is a creative, purposeful, evolutionary profession. Its practice involves the application of immutable physical laws that can never be violated without penalty.

The Role of Engineering

The role of engineering has been changing for 5,000 years and has already passed through two phases. The first phase spanned the prescientific age during which builders and artisans used trial-and-error methods to improve technology. It lasted until about 1750. Builders designed and constructed the public facilities and craftsmen invented and created the consumer products. Originally, the facilities included irrigation, water supply, and transportation systems, as well as fortresses, monuments, and buildings. Egyptian pyramids, Greek temples, Roman aqueducts and roads, China's Great Wall, medieval cathedrals and royal palaces are examples. Early consumer products encompassed utensils, clothing, furniture, shelters, jewelry, and weapons.

The second phase began as engineering education emerged after 1716, when the French engineer Jean Rodolphe Perronet was authorized to instruct "designers in science and practice needful to ...bridges and highways" for the French Corps des Ponts et Chaussees. This second phase began to flourish about the time of the Industrial Revolution in 1750, shortly after the Renaissance. Since then, the builder's and the artisan's functions have been transformed into a myriad of engineering specialties. These can be consolidated into two categories:

  1. facility engineers who designed and built what is now called the infrastructure, and
  2. product engineers who created and produced the consumer items.

The third phase began about 1940 with the introduction of engineering marvels like radar, miniaturization, nuclear power, computers, microprocessors, and composite materials. Unfortunately, unwanted technological side-effects like pollution, soil erosion, carcinogenic additives, brittle fracture, and obsolescence were generated simultaneously. It matters not whether these side-effects were generated by hitherto uncoupled scientific disciplines as technology expanded, or by political ineptitude or public indifference. The side-effects became troublesome enough to need attention. Some of these could have been foreseen; recognition of others was beyond the state of the art. All side-effects needed to be minimized or eliminated, usually by expensive retrofitting.

Engineering is now poised to enter a far more challenging and exciting phase that will include effective participation in societal leadership to guide technology. Such plans should not only minimize serious side-effects but improve living standards that embrace material wants and nourish personal and political freedom.

The changing role of the engineer was forecast clearly by the famous bridge engineer, David B. Steinman (1886-1960). He said, "(T)he engineer, besides dealing with materials, mathematics, machines, and artistic design, is also handling people...The Engineer is fundamentally a servant of society and human progress...Whatever his problems, the analytical attack of the engineer- the engineering method-should be indispensable in the continuing advance of social order, prosperity, and civilization... he must learn that the scientists, on the one hand, and the artists and humanists on the other, are his allies, his co-workers in shaping the world to come."

The Engineer's Expanding Obligation

The engineer's expanding professional obligation involves participation in the guidance of technology. All engineers must learn how to apply the laws that govern human behavior as well as materials response. They need to be technically qualified for professional practice and able to exercise a leadership role in society. These future maestros of engineering will need to be masters of technology, skilled in managing people, and advocates of public health and safety, of resource conservation, and of environmental preservation.

Engineers will need to blend their understanding of technology with the emerging culture of our times to exercise leadership roles. In the 1940s William E. Wickenden wrote the Professional Guide for Junior Engineers. It included a chapter entitled "The Second Mile" which stated, "There is...a bridge to be built and...culture...In order that the two...may make a perfect juncture, the engineer is expected to know the meaning of literary and art forms, but it is just as important that men of art and letters should know the fundamental meanings of technology. To interpret them in terms all may understand should be one of the major cultural contributions of engineers..."

The Impact of Technology

Tomorrow's engineers must understand how technology has been affecting society in order to guide it better. The tremendous surge of technological transfer and innovation has bettered living standards to levels unthinkable a century ago and has transformed mankind's political desires. These trends developed as mass production, interchangeability of parts, and worldwide communication demonstrated to people everywhere what could be produced in democratic nations that adhered to an economic system of free enterprise. It was obvious that technology works best when freedom works as well.

Engineers are becoming increasingly aware of the effects of technology on society, environment, and culture. A broader education in mankind's culture and heritage would help engineers in their emerging role to guide technology and to enhance the transformation toward an even freer world.


Your educational program should have awakened an interest in cultural studies. These enable one, as the noted newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) said, to understand " the creative principle of the society in which they must live-the moral order, the religious tradition, the conception of law." No professional can guide society well without knowing the history of the democratic state. One can learn much of this simply by reading. The need for the engineer to stay abreast of advances in engineering lifelong is obvious. The need is just as urgent to probe the humanities in depth to influence people and to guide technology.

This ability to lead does not necessarily mean that one's name will be associated with technical achievements. The service to society of most professionals is anonymous. The personal satisfaction of having earned the respect of one's peers is ample reward. Engineering practice is fascinating enough even if no one remembers who invented the zero, the wheel, the windmill; or if only a few can name the inventor of the alternating current motor, or TV, or the helicopter. Of course a few, like Archimedes, Leonardo de Vinci, Galileo, Watt, Fulton, the Wright brothers, Edison, and Ford become famous enough for everyone to remember.

Your task as an engineer will involve more responsibility because of the engineer's emerging role to guide technology. We wish you well, for in time it will be your turn to tell those who follow you what it means to be an engineer.

Your practice, as technology grows more complex, may be to specialize more. However, if the engineering profession is to serve and guide society effectively, it will have to achieve global unification. Without unity above the plane of specialization, a profession cannot fulfill its role of trusteeship in modern society. Let that unification be your accomplishment.

The Order of the Engineer - Order and Purpose

The Order of the Engineer was initiated in the United States to foster a spirit of pride and responsibility in the engineering profession, to bridge the gap between training and experience, and to present to the public a visible symbol identifying the engineer.

The first ceremony was held on June 4, 1970 at Cleveland State University. Others like it have since spread across the United States at which graduate and registered engineers are invited to accept the Obligation of the Engineer and to wear a stainless steel ring. The ceremonies are conducted by Links (local sections) of the Order.

The Obligation is a creed similar to the oath attributed to Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.) that is generally taken by medical graduates and which sets forth an ethical code. The Obligation likewise, contains parts of the Canon of Ethics of major engineering societies. Initiates, as they accept it voluntarily, pledge to uphold the standards and dignity of the engineering profession and to serve humanity by making the best use of Earths precious wealth.

The Order is not a membership organization; there are never any meetings to attend or dues to pay. Instead, the Order does foster a unity of purpose and the honoring of ones pledge lifelong.

The Obligation of the Order of the Engineer is similar to the Canadian "Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer" initiated there in 1926. It uses a wrought iron ring, conducts a secret ceremony, and administers an oath authorized by Rudyard Kipling. The extension of the Ritual outside Canada was prevented by copyright and other conflicting factors.