Engineering, a Brief History

Old fortification sketches

Schematic drawing of military fortification taken from Cyclopaedia, published 1728

Human beings have been adapting their environment to better suit their needs and wants since before recorded history.  There have always been people who designed and built tools or other devices to solve problems or improve lives.

As civilizations developed, people began reshaping their environment with farms, villages, ships, roads, and eventually great cities. With each advance came new challenges that required more complex and creative solutions.  One early example of an activity that we now call engineering was the construction and improvement of the aqueduct system that transported water in and around Rome starting in the fourth century BC. A project of that scope today would be largely the responsibility of engineers.

The profession we know as engineering today emerged during the 1500’s when specialists began using mathematics to design military fortifications. These special military architects would generally let craftsmen do the actual construction, thus becoming the first true engineers in the modern sense of the word.

Nineteenth Century

Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, new processing methods - most notably for steel and petroleum - reshaped transportation, construction, and manufacturing. Scientist, inventors and entrepreneurs flourished and “game-changing” technologies appeared in several different industries.

Advances were made in all areas, including technologies that transformed everyday activities. For example, in:

  • 1851, Isaac Singer patents a continuous stitch sewing machine
  • 1868, Christopher Sholes patents the first practical typewriter
  • 1873, Andrew Hallidie invents cable cars for use in San Francisco
  • 1874, Joseph Glidden invents barbed wire
  • 1876, Alexander Graham Bell patents the telephone
  • 1884, Lewis E Waterman patents a practical fountain pen

It was during the late 1800’s when inventors began identifying with the engineering process and the engineering profession began to divide into special disciplines, such as civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering.

Up until the Civil War, United States engineers were trained at military academies or through industry apprenticeship programs. Since the 1860’s more emphasis has been place on formal training that includes significant courses in mathematics and science. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology opened in 1865 with 15 students.

Twentieth Century

The Greatest Engineering Achievements of the 20th Century website lists 20 ways in which engineering has transformed our world.

In the 20th century, engineering quite literally electrified the nation. It took us into the sky and out into space. It gave us cars and the highways on which to drive them. It made out waters cleaner and safer and revolutionized the way we produce food.

Engineering made our homes more comfortable and efficient with appliances that saved both time and money. In connected us through telephone, radio, and television and gave us new ways to see ourselves – and the world – with a variety of imaging technologies.

All of that was before the computer and the Internet.

Looking Forward

Engineers are helping feed and support an increasingly urban world population that could reach 10 billion by the year 2050. They are working to ensure that all people have access to clean, fresh water and adequate shelter.

Engineers today are developing safe, efficient, and renewable forms of energy. They are helping to improve our health with more effective drugs and medical treatments. They are working to design new and more powerful ways of creating, storing, and using information.

Engineers are now and will continue to be critical to advancing technologies that will allow individuals to work, learn, and play in new and interesting ways.

Grand challenges for engineering

The National Academy of Engineering has announced a list of 14 “grand challenges” for engineering in this century:

  • Making solar power economical;
  • Providing energy from fusion;
  • Developing carbon-sequestration methods;
  • Managing the nitrogen cycle;
  • Providing access to clean water;
  • Restoring and improving urban infrastructure;
  • Advancing health informatics;
  • Engineering better medicines;
  • Reverse-engineering the brain;
  • Preventing nuclear terror;
  • Securing cyberspace;
  • Enhancing virtual reality;
  • Advancing personalized learning; and
  • Engineering the tools of scientific discovery.

Find out more about engineering’s grand challenges on the Grand Challenges website.