Today, much of the world’s population lives in engineered environments. Most of us are surrounded by technological devices that dramatically affect how we live our lives. We live in houses whose structural, electrical, plumbing, and communications systems have been designed by engineers. We travel in cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes; we communicate with each other using televisions, computers, telephones, and cell phones. Engineers have played a key role in the development of all these devices.
It is not difficult to imagine life without many of these advances; in fact, some of the world's poorest people live today without the benefits that we take for granted, such as clean water and working sanitation systems, plentiful food, and electronic conveniences. Much of the history of engineering has been directed at such problems, and we are the beneficiaries of their solutions as well as the inheritors of unforeseen new problems that engineering solutions have created.
The work of engineers has dramatically affected the nature of our society today as well as the course of civilization throughout the centuries. Engineers are often seen as purely technical individuals whose only concern is the development of new devices or structures. However, this is far from the truth. Throughout history, engineers have worked within their societies and have been constrained by their societies; the success or failure of engineering endeavors often has less to do with technical issues than with nontechnical issues including economics, social conventions, and luck.
Most modern definitions of engineering emphasize the application of knowledge of science and math to develop useful objects, products, structures, and so forth. While this is certainly true of modern engineers, engineering practice has historically extended beyond the use of science and math to include the ingenuity required to make things work. Many engineering feats of the past are even more impressive because they were achieved without a complete understanding of important scientific principles. Thus, for example, medieval cathedral builders can be considered as engineers even though their scientific understanding of forces and loads in structures was limited. Even with today's rapid advances in knowledge, much modern engineering practice involves solving problems that are not necessarily rooted in math or science.
The history of the word "engineer" gives some understanding of what engineers have been in the past. The original meaning of the word was one who constructs military engines; military engines were devices such as catapults as well as fortifications, roadways, and bridges. This meaning was expanded to mean one who invents or designs. The meaning of engineers as those who plan and execute public works was established in the early 1600s.
In this chapter, we present just a small fraction of all of the historical events related to engineering. Throughout history, society has been affected by the technological advances created by engineers, and engineers and their technology have both been dramatically affected by the societies in which they occurred. Thus, a complete history of engineering would require a complete history of society, which is clearly beyond the scope of this chapter. Also, this chapter focuses primarily on engineering within the western world, including the Roman Empire, Europe, and later North America.
After working through this chapter, you should be able to do the following:
- Give examples of how engineers have used creativity and judgment in the application of math, science, and technology to solve societal problems.
- Explain why complex engineering problems are usually solved by teams working within broader social structures.
- Explain how engineering progress provides new human capabilities, which in turn increases engineering capabilities.
- Give examples of how engineering provides society with both intended and desirable consequences as well as unintended and undesirable consequences.