Tuesday, July 31, 2018 - 16:43

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), London, has a monthly magazine entitled the “E & T” magazine, which has a regular column, written by Justin Pollard called the “Eccentric Engineer”. It is factual, informative and above all witty. Pollard is not an engineer but a historian with an inkling for science and technology. In his column he brings  personalities that were little known or have been forgotten, along with their inventions back to life. A collection of his articles was published in the book “Buses, Bankers & the Beer of Revenge” and in my opinion it should be on every engineer’s bookshelf.

Engineers tend to be seen as a serious and dour lot and what they do seems by many to be rather boring. However, the fifty short stories contained in Pollard’s book would astonish the reader and change that perception. Each story is no longer than a single magazine page, yet on reading you are always left with a smile on your face and you have learnt something new.

Engineering in all its disciplines is the bedrock on which the modern world rests. It may not be glamorous or trendy but just imagine for a moment a world without engineers – no cell phones, no computers, no electrical appliances, no buildings, bridges or roads, no trains & boats & planes (Burt Bacharach, 1965 Top Ten hit). We would be back in the Stone Age.

Humankind has needed engineering skills from the time that humans abandoned the nomadic life of the hunter gatherer in favour of growing crops and tending cattle. The pyramids of Egypt, built around 2 500 BC, were the world’s first megastructures. They were considered old by the Greeks when they built the Parthenon circa 440 BC. The master builders, the Romans, built roads, bridges, aqueducts, civic buildings, apartment blocks (insulae) and amphitheatres. The Colosseum, Rome, built between 72 & 80 AD, had a seating capacity for 50 000 spectators and was the largest stadium right up until the 20th century although by then it had fallen into disuse and had crumbled away with only one third of its grandeur still standing. The disintegration was not due to shoddy construction, but to natural disasters, such as earthquakes and storms.

The Romans built strong durable structures that have stood the test of time as evinced by the numerous Roman remains to be seen from Hadrian’s Wall to the Pont du Gard and of course the ancient monuments of the Eternal City – Rome.

The Roman Empire in the West fell to the Barbarians in the 5th century AD and the timeline that followed for the next 1 000 years (500 to 1500 AD) is known to us as the Medieval Period (a.k.a. Middle Ages), a time of kings, castles, cathedrals and crusades where construction was in stone and the Master Mason was the architect, builder, craftsman, designer and engineer all rolled into one. Note that the term “Engineer” was in narrow use for those who supervised the construction of engines of war and the completion of works intended to serve armies, i.e. Military Engineers. However, around the middle of the 18th century there arose a new class of engineers who were concerned with the building of roads and bridges that were neither exclusively military in purpose nor executed by soldiers and by way of distinction they called themselves Civilian Engineers, later to be abbreviated to Civil. This coincided with the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840), which began in Britain, carried to continental Europe and changed human society from one based on agriculture to one based on industry.

During the 19th century, in what we term the Victorian Era, there was a gradual increase in the branches of engineering with the first derivative being mechanical engineering, which dealt with steam engines, machine tools, millwork and machinery in general. It was soon followed by mining engineering, dealing with the location and the working of coal seams and metalliferous ores and other minerals (hard rock mining). The sudden increase of industry wrought in the 19th century brought about even more specialised branches as no one individual could be an expert in everything. One English engineer, I.K. Brunel (1806-1859) came mighty close, but he would be the exception that proved the rule.

To those who are unaware of the meaning of “engineering”, it can be defined as “the practice of science, engineering science and technology concerned with the solution of problems of economic importance and those essential to the progress of society” (as given by ECSA). The charter of the Institution of Civil Engineers of Great Britain (1828) gave the aims and functions of civil engineering as the “Art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man, as the means of production and of the traffic in states, both for external and internal trade, as applied in the construction of roads, bridges, canals, river navigation and docks for intercourse and exchange and in the construction of ports, moles, breakwaters and lighthouses. In the art of navigation by artificial power for the purpose of commerce and in the construction and adaptation of machinery and in the drainage of cities and towns”.

Phew! Quite a broad spectrum of engineering practice and railways and electricity (then in their infancy) were not even mentioned.

The main branches of engineering, in alphabetical order are, Chemical, Civil, Electrical, Mechanical, Metallurgical and Mining. There are many sub-branches of these; for instance structural engineering is an offshoot of civil engineering. As technology improves and areas of further specialisation develop new sub-branches will inevitably come into being.

It is well known that South Africa has a perennial shortage of engineering skills which is a major concern for the country’s economic health and prospects. The first step in addressing this problem is to improve the teaching of maths and science in our schools and in so doing increasing the number of learners equipped with the ability to study engineering at university. A second step is to have a “bridge year” between a learner gaining his “Matric” and going on to university. In that year he or she would specialise in subjects needed in a first year degree course. We see this in Britain, where three “A Levels” are required for university entry. The preferred subjects would be maths and physics with one other (chemistry, biology, geology or economics). This would reduce the number of first year students failing and having to repeat or worse, dropping out. In our multilingual society it is also imperative that the first year student, whatever his background, has command of the English language as most lectures and textbooks are in English. That is not to discount, demean or disparage the other ten official languages, it is purely a matter of cost effectiveness and English fits the bill, especially when you consider the number of technical papers written in English. 

Are all engineers “eccentric”? Well, they certainly have a different perspective to other professionals and I find “eclectic” to be the better choice of word as it means “borrowing freely from various sources”, which engineers are very adept at doing when it comes to solving problems.

Main image: This Industrial Revolution altered the face of the earth. Visible in this picture are some of the revolutionary developments of the period: a steam boat, steam locomotives, and two epoch-making bridges.

References and further reading:

  1. “Buses, Bankers & the Beer of Revenge” by Justin Pollard, published by IET, 2012.
  2. “Invitation to ENGINEERING” by Eric Laithwaite, published by Blackwell, 1984.
  3. “The Engines of Our Ingenuity” by John Lienhard, published by Oxford University Press, 2000
  4. “Civilisation” by Kenneth Clark”, published by BBC & John Murray, 1969.
  5. “Works of Man” by Ronald W. Clark, published by Century, 1985.
  6. “A Pictorial History of Science and Engineering” by the editors of YEAR.
  7. “Engineering” a careers leaflet from Wits University, Johannesburg.
  8. The web site of the Engineering Council of South Africa: www.ecsa.co.za
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