Engineering - or not all engineers are civil

pencil sketch of a medieval counterweight trebuchet
Medieval counterweight trebuchet [public domain]

The term engineering and engineer is a blanket term for a vast array of disciplines and skills. I have spoken to members of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) in the past and one particular member argued that an engineer had to be degree educated and preferably a Chartered Engineer or at the very least a member of ICE. Although I do have a degree it is not an engineering degree, so by his thinking, I cannot possibly be an engineer. He also only considered his own discipline of civil engineering.  Needless to say, I disagreed with his views.

The term engineer probably dates back to the 14th century, when it was derived from the Latin “ingeniare”. The first use of the word was in relation to warfare and probably referred to someone who operated a siege engine, such as a ballista or trebuchet, or someone who constructed a siege engine or military fortifications. Therefore, the first use of the term was probably in relation to military engineering. The word engine is also derived from a Latin word “ingenium” which means an “innate quality, especially mental power, hence a clever invention”.

Engineering also existed in earlier periods with the construction of monuments such as the Great Wall of China, Roman Aqueducts, the Pyramids and the Parthenon. Apart from the Great Wall of China, these were probably some of the earliest civil rather than military engineering projects. Although these Civil Engineering projects were much earlier the term Civil Engineer appears to have been first used in reference to John Smeaton (1724 – 1792). He was the founder of the Society of Civil Engineers which was the precursor of the Institution of Civil Engineers. His best known work is the third Eddystone lighthouse, which was completed in 1759.

Aeolipile Engine Animation with steam
MichaelFrey [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

My own discipline of Mechanical Engineering also has a long history, dating back to the first boats around 6000 BC. Egyptian rock paintings of canoes, dugouts and rafts date from this period. About 62 AD a simple steam engine was invented by Hero of Alexander, known as the Æolipile. This was a bladeless radial steam turbine that rotated due to water being heated to produce torque generated by steam jets.  In 644 AD the Persians developed a wind-power machine, known as a Panemone windmill. This consists of wind catching blades that move parallel to the wind creating drag. The breakthrough in mechanical engineering was probably during the 17th century with Sir Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion and the development of Calculus.

Today, the word engineering has many different branches. As well as older Military, Civil and Mechanical Engineering there are many others including Chemical, Electrical, Environmental and Computer Engineering. The word is sometimes even used to describe someone who has possibly undergone a short course of training to be able to repair or install one piece of equipment.

While I don’t agree entirely with the member of ICE mentioned at the beginning, I do feel that someone to call themselves an engineer, they should have undergone some recognised training possibly an apprenticeship or university degree. But, more importantly have intuitive ideas to solve problems built up from a varied experience in their particular discipline.   

Unfortunately, engineers are still seen by many as either someone with a hard hat and hi-vis jacket or a mechanic wearing a boiler suit and holding a spanner. While I have worn a hard hat, hi-vis jacket, boiler suit and even held a spanner, I have spent far more of my time producing design drawings, working on calculations or trying to find a solution to a problem.  My personal definition of an engineer is someone with enough knowledge and experience to solve a problem or in other words the innate quality, especially mental power to design a clever invention.  


laptop computer screen with autocad loaded
 Image of my desk and laptop with AutoCAD loaded on the screen

Sources used and further reading

Wikipedia - Engineering

A Brief History of Engineering

Westminster Abbey – John Smeaton

Institution of Mechanical Engineers

Wikipedia – Panemone windmill

Definitions - Æolipile

Engineering Humor





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Web page last updated  28 January 2019

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