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By Jack Ganssle

National Engineers Week

Published 2/20/2006

According to http://eweek.org, February 19 to the 25th is National Engineers Week. The title is ironically appropriate considering our well-known inability to compose a grammatical sentence. I would have thought "Engineers" is possessive, so would call this National Engineers' Week.

Though perhaps we're weak in the literary arts, engineers have been the force creating civilization for thousands of years. L. Sprauge de Camp's fascinating book "The Ancient Engineers" mentions that the wall of the city of Memphis (in Egypt, not Tennessee) was the first recorded engineering project. 5000 years ago an unknown engineer created this large structure to defend the city King Mena built.

De Camp claims the first engineer known by name was Imhotep, pyramid builder, doctor, and much more. He lived about 2500 BC.

For thousands of years engineers practiced little other than architecture and civil engineering. They built canals, wells, buildings and defensive fortifications.

Construction materials, then engineers' prime resource, were plentiful for millennia. But by the 18th century England came to dominate the high seas. They built so many ships - the so-called "Wooden Walls" that protected that island - that their supply of trees was nearly exhausted. Coal became an alternative fuel for heating and cooking, leading to the dense London fogs of yore.

But coal is deep in the ground. Mines flood. Newcomen invented the steam engine primarily as a pump to empty mines. James Watt perfected that engine, and initiated the beginnings of the industrial revolution. That period reshaped the Western world, and would not have been possible without mechanical power.

Working largely from experience and an eye for strength rather than math and handbooks these mostly self-trained people extended their reach and built factories, iron ships, and more. According to Henry Petroski the 1800s were known as the "great age of the engineer," despite alarmingly-frequent bridge collapses and flooding tunnels. Engineers were rock stars, feted and admired.

Today the luster is gone. I'm appalled that 100 years ago "engineer" was a title of grandeur and importance, but today people are confused; some think we drive trains. It's a title of contention: in some jurisdictions it's quite illegal to use the term unless one has particular academic credentials.

It's a field beset with trials and tribulations. We're no longer superstars. Management views us as replaceable cogs, skilled but as interchangeable as dentists.

Yet we're still the folks who build the world. Some of our creations are revolutionary, others are mere baubles. Without us, life on this planet would collapse to an agrarian society incapable of supporting most of us. Think about that! Engineers are the force battling the entropy that, left unchecked, will kill <i>billions</i>.

Despite a strange career that has included titles of CEO, Board Member, VP, and more, the one I'm most proud of, the one I always use on tax returns and in casual chats with friends and new acquaintances, is "Engineer." Despite all of the problems our career now faces, it's still a hell of a time to be an engineer.

What do you think?