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Evolution of engineering

The engineering team has developed from ingeniators, practical craftsmen and artisans over the past 2500 years and three revolutions into a range of categories and application areas as shown in the diagram below.

Evolution-of-engineering-th

  1. Engineering before the scientific revolution

The forerunners of engineers proceeded mainly by trial and error.  Yet tinkering combined with imagination produced many amazing devices. The name “engineer” itself originated in the eleventh century from the Latin word ingeniator, used for conceptualisers of ingenious devices such as the Archimidean screw, a clever device to raise water from a river onto the land by Archimedes (287-212 BCE). Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) bore the official title of Ingegnere Generale. His notebooks reveal that some Renaissance engineers began to ask systematically what works and why.

The skills of these ingeniators were often applied to the wider advantage to civil society such as canals, bridges and roads and therefore the early concept of civil engineering.  

2. Engineering in the scientific revolution

From the eighteenth through early nineteenth century engineering gradually adopted a scientific approach to practical problems.  Many historians regard Galileo Galilees’ work (1564-1642) as the start of theoretical predictions in the design of artifacts. Numerous discoveries in the natural sciences and the development of areas of mathematics such as calculus, built the scientific basis on which engineering could develop in the way it has. The laws of motion formulated by Newton (1642 – 1727) launched calculus-based mechanics, essential to most of engineering sciences.

Engineers changed from practical artists to scientific professionals as technical training shifted to engineering schools.  Information flowed in organised meetings and journal publications as professional societies emerged.

3. Engineering in the industrial revolution

The industrial revolution is represented by the arrival of electricity, mechanization, mass production and the replacement of human and animal muscle power by water and steam. Devising ever more ingenious machines became a new division of engineering. Mining and metallurgy became more important as the importance of coal and iron increased to e.g. produces steam.

Different engineering roles also developed e.g. engineers conceptualised and designed the machinery while technicians and artisans were required to manufacture these machines.

Chemical and electrical engineering developed in close collaboration with chemistry and physics. Two examples are the development of thermodynamics by Willard Gibbs (1839-1903) and laminar flow of fluids by Osborn Reynolds (182-1912).  They laid the foundations of modern mechanical and chemical engineering.

Marine engineers tamed the peril of ocean exploration.  Aeronautic engineers turned the ancient dream of flight into a travel convenience for ordinary people.  Industrial engineers designed and managed mass production and distribution systems.

College engineering curricula were well established and graduate schools appeared.  Workshops turned into to laboratories, tinkering became industrial research, and individual inventions were organized into systematic innovations.

4. Engineering the information age

Research and development boomed in all fields of science and technology after World War II, partly because of the Cold War and the Sputnik effect.  The explosion of engineering research, which used to lag behind natural science, was especially impressive, as can be seen from the relative expansion of graduate education.

Engineering was also stimulated by new technologies, notably aerospace, microelectronics, computers, novel means of telecommunications from the Internet to cell phones.  Turbojet and rocket engines propelled aeronautic engineering into unprecedented height and spawned astronautic engineering.  Utilization of atomic and nuclear power brought nuclear engineering.  Advanced materials with performance hitherto undreamed of poured out from the laboratories of materials science and engineering.  Above all, microelectronics, telecommunications, computer and software engineering joined force to precipitate the information revolution in which intellectual chores are increasingly alleviated by machines.

The proliferation of products and systems such as copiers, automobile parts and assembly lines that contain mechanical and electrical and electronic components and are controlled by software has given rise to a hybrid field of mechatronics.


5. Engineering today

To lead the progress of these sophisticated technologies, engineers have remade themselves by reforming educational programs and expanding research efforts.  Intensive engineering research produced not only new technologies but also bodies of powerful systematic knowledge: the engineering sciences and systems theories in information, computer, control, and communications.  Engineering developed extensive theories of  its own and firmly established itself as a science of creating, explaining, and utilizing manmade systems.

So far the physical sciences – physics and chemistry – have contributed most to the development of technology.  They will continue to contribute, for instance in the emerging nanotechnology that will take over the torch of the microelectronics revolution.  Increasingly, they are joined by biology, which has been transformed by the spectacular success of molecular and genetic biology.  Biotechnology is a multidisciplinary field, drawing knowledge from biology, biochemistry, physics, information processing and various engineering expertise.  The cooperation and convergence of traditional intellectual disciplines in the development of new technology is the trend of the future.

This section clearly demonstrates the large range of engineering applications which differ in specialist knowledge but with overlap in fundamental knowledge and competencies such as problem solving.

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SAWomEng@network will host its first set of workshops in November. Ideally geared at young graduates in the engineering industry, this year, they aim to tackle Ethical Leadership and the contribution engineers make to ethical leadership and decision making. For further details visit www.sawomeng.org.za

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