Evolution of Engineering – Dim Past to Near Future

by Dr.Ing. Clint Steele
Senior Lecturer
Product Design Engineering
PhD, MEI, B.Eng Mech (Hons)
Faculty of Engineering & Industrial Sciences (H38)
Swinburne University of Technology

Engineering in the Beginning

Engineering started long ago when humans first started forming the items around them into shapes that were more useful. However, it was not until humans settled, and needed numerous types of technology to build cities, did engineering (from the Latin for ingenious) become a separate profession with its own name, training and identity separate from others. Since that time engineering has gone through a number of changes. By understanding those changes and what caused them it becomes possible to make some judgement on what engineering will be like in the future. This is what I will attempt to do in the following. It is of course my opinion, and I have no issue if you disagree with my conclusions. At the very least I hope this makes you think about how engineering is changing and what you will do for yourself so that you will be as capable and as useful as any other engineer as these changes take place.

As I mentioned in the first paragraph, we have always had engineering. However, it was not a separate profession. It was more intuitive and it probably could have been anyone who came up with a good idea and put it into practice. Think of woomeras, bows, and stone axes. What was true then, and is still true now, is that it was all about making life easier. This is probably a question that engineers will always need to have in their heads ‘how am I making things better?’.

There is something else interesting about this early stage of engineering. Some area of the world seemed to show greater advances in engineering that allowed for a more technological society and thus even more rapid change. Why did this happen and what does this tell us about engineering? The answers, I think, are best conveyed by James Burke in his TV program “After the Warming” and Jared Diamond in any of his many books on why humans are the way they are (“Rise and fall of the Third Chimpanzee”, “Collapse and Guns, Germs and Steel” are some good examples). In short, it is argued that technology advanced in parts of the world where there were natural resources that allowed for a specialisation of labour and needs that required technological solutions. It will probably always be the case that unless an engineer is well resourced with the latest in tools and skills, they will fall behind that standard.

The Industrial Revolution to World War II

Engineering had proven its value to society when it shifted a focus from purely military efforts toward civil development. This proof was even stronger with the commencement of the industrial revolution, brought about by the invention of the modern steam engine, and the increased standard of living that it bought us. Many of us already know this. However, few know that much of the theory behind steam power, thermodynamics, was not developed until scientists actually started analysing these machines. Despite these advances in technology, it was still a time when an engineer could get by on intuition.

Nevertheless, this was also a time when theory was becoming more important. In the 18th century the French military kept secret a method of analysing structures so that they would be the only force capable of designing efficient and effective barricades. This was the beginning of the importance of science and theory in engineering.

The south west Pacific activities of the Second World War were described by General MacArthur as “The engineers’ war”. Regardless of your opinion on war and the role of engineers within it, it is well worth becoming familiar with the story of the Seabees. The Seabees were a division of the US Navy made of a collection of men from various disciplines ranging from numerous trades to astronomers. The key to recruitment was qualifications and skills as opposed to physical health and fitness, and the average age was 37. Some were men wanting to join to keep an eye on their sons. The Seabees were confronted with various construction tasks. Tasks that had not been done before; this was the first time airfields needed to be made in the middle of a jungle or bridges that could carry a tank needing to be quickly erected. The solution developed for these tasks were developed by relying on basic theory, familiarity with technology and experience based ingenuity.

1960s to Now (2010s)

This approach to engineering remained for the next 20 or so years and many engineering qualifications were based on engineering challenge after engineering challenge where something physical would be the outcome. Such an approach definitely allowed for creativity and ingenuity. However, the solutions, while getting the job done, were not optimal.

With the advent of the space race, this approach to engineering not only seemed quaint, but it was also insufficient. Engineers would need to become more intimate with scientific theory so that they could produce optimised designs and systems. While this need became more acute in the 1960s it was foreshadowed decades earlier with the development of the German/NAZI V-2 rocket by Wernher von Braun, who was later instrumental in US space efforts.

This resulted in a conflict between balancing the coverage of scientific theory and the development of practical ingenuity within engineering education and practice. This conflict is still in place today and many engineers possibly still argue about which is most important. Answering this question will provide some insight into what the future of engineering will be.

Engineering in the Near Future

In 1997 the design researcher Nigel Cross analysed the interviews with two expert engineers about their experiences in engineering to find what it was that made them the best in their areas. He identified three attributes common to these clearly successful and highly awarded engineers. They were skilled at understanding the numerous aspects each problem presented, they were able to identify the real problem that needed to be solved and thus redefined and they were able to use theory to optimise their designs. The first aspect shows a need for system thinking whereas the other two show that engineers need to be both creative and have an ability to apply theory. In the future an engineer cannot choose to be creative and intuitive or be good with theory; they will need to be both.

An ability to think systemically and the creative ability to redefine problems are things we can practice. It would seem that all we engineers will need to put a focused effort into developing these skills throughout our careers. Luckily, they are generic skills that we can develop in one aspect of life and then take to another, but there is only so much theory that we can become expert in. What do we do when we face a problem that involves theory we are unfamiliar with?

This is not a problem that will become less common. John Stuart Mill was described as the last man who knew all there was worth knowing. He died in 1873. Since then it has simply been impossible for any one person to make a similar claim. The same is true within engineering itself. We no longer have the hero engineers like Marc Brunel. Engineering projects are simply too complex. Truth be told, even Brunel probably had to rely on others. It might be that no engineer has been truly great by himself since Heron. Therefore, engineers today, and into the future, will need to have a well-connected network of fellow engineers with a diversity of knowledge that they can call upon as they confront engineering problems requiring specialised knowledge.

Based on the above it would seem that in the future engineers will still need resources to be able to stay in front of developments. They will need to be both creative and have an understanding of scientific theory. As we continue to study engineering practice and thinking, engineers will need to continually develop their ability to think so that they can tackle engineering problems with the best of them. However, as our scientific understanding increases it will only become harder to possess all the theory needed for any particular engineering project. Thus, networking and an ability to call upon fellow engineers with very different knowledge from our own will be another attribute that engineers will need into the foreseeable future.

Note on the Author

Clint Steele researches engineering thinking and develops techniques to help engineers better develop key cognitive abilities to help engineers be better engineers. He is also the administrator of “Ingeneers Network Australia” to facilitate networking between Professional Engineers gathering ideas from other Professional Engineer experts in specialist areas to assist them with their projects. If you would like to contact Clint with thoughts on what he has written above then you may email him at clint.steele@cjsteele.com or phone him on +61 3 9214 8449.

Clint Steele
Senior Lecturer
Product Design Engineering
PhD, MEI, B.Eng Mech (Hons)
+61 3 9214 8449

Faculty of Engineering & Industrial Sciences (H38)
Swinburne University of Technology
PO Box 218
Hawthorn, Victoria, 3122

Article written by Dr.Ing. Clint Steele in January 2012