Becoming an Engineer
Even with societies setting standards and states requiring licenses, educators remain the profession’s gatekeepers.
By Henry Petroski
According to a new biography of Henry David Thoreau, the nature writer and Transcendentalist “became a fully professional civil engineer” when he acquired a top-of-the-line compass, measuring tape, and other essential surveying equipment. He put it to good use in and around his hometown of Concord, Mass., and added to the growing reputation of the nascent profession.
The designation “civil engineer” was still relatively new, having been coined in the late 18th century to signify engineers who were not part of the military. Calling oneself a civil engineer was akin to making a declaration of independence, one favored by professionals who wished to be free to choose what projects they worked on. The analogous term today might be consulting engineer.
Thoreau’s self-identification as a civil engineer, along with possession of specialized equipment and knowledge, was a model that worked for budding engineers in America well into the middle of the 19th century. Contemporaries of Thoreau, such as James Buchanan Eads, chief engineer of the first bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis, prepared themselves for the profession by independent reading and supervised doing.
There were few schools of engineering in early 19th century America. The military academy at West Point did serve to train civil engineers, and courses in engineering were taught in a few other schools. Beginning in 1835, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute offered a degree in engineering.
But as late as 1851 the suspension-bridge engineer John Roebling lamented that while there were many institutions dedicated to the study of law, theology, and medicine, there were few places where a person “whose pursuits in life will be of a practical nature can obtain a thorough education.” This void did begin to be filled after midcentury: In 1859, the Cooper Union was founded, and in 1861 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was incorporated. But widespread opportunities to receive a formal engineering education were absent until the Morrill Act of 1862 established the first land grant colleges.
The American Society of Civil Engineers, founded in 1852, promised to serve as a credentialing body akin to the British Institution of Civil Engineers. The rights of individuals to identify themselves as members of the society indicated that they had been vetted to be considered legitimate engineers. But by the end of century, with the growing proliferation of engineering specialties—including mining, mechanical, and electrical engineering—membership in ASCE was for civil engineers only in the narrowed sense of the term.
Into the early 20th century, with no single authoritative body serving as endorser of engineers in general, there was no prohibition against incompetent or even downright fraudulent persons declaring themselves to be engineers, and the public was at their mercy. It was at this time that the individual states began to pass legislation requiring a license to practice engineering where the public was put at risk. These registration laws introduced the designation P.E. for “professional engineer.” But many engineers, such as those employed by large industrial corporations like General Electric, were exempt from registration requirements.
Today, the engineering degree is the expected minimum credential for entry into the engineering profession, and engineering educators are essentially the gatekeepers. It behooves us to take our responsibility seriously and confer upon our students not only the academic essentials but also the proud history of a profession that lifted itself up by its bootstraps to join law, theology, and medicine in the privileged position granted them by their specialized knowledge.
Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University.
Image Courtesy of Catherine Petroski