What’s in a name? Small words that make a big difference.
By Henry Petroski
The name of our Society contains the preposition for. We are a society for engineering education, rather than one of engineering educators. It is a clear distinction.
Most engineering associations use the word of in their name. The first Society of Civil Engineers was established in Britain in 1771. Its reputation as an old boys’ dining club, whose members discussed the field’s latest news and technical developments, drove younger engineers to found in 1818 the less exclusive Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE). The institution’s primary purpose was a broader dissemination of knowledge. With the distinguished engineer Thomas Telford as its first president and given the extent of the British Empire, ICE provided a natural model for professional societies and their names worldwide.
The institution’s influence even reached Britain’s former colony: The American Society of Civil Engineers was founded in 1852. ASCE has since grown to rival ICE in its scope. Each is a leading publisher and conference sponsor. But, as with any human enterprise, with growth comes a desire for further growth.
A society of engineers by its very name implies a condition for membership. ASCE got around this by establishing sub-societies called institutes, which non-engineers can join. Thus, geologists and other scientists working in areas related to building design and construction are welcome to join ASCE’s Structures Institute. Ironically, ICE calls its sub-institutes societies!
Today, ICE claims 93,000 members. ASCE’s membership totals 150,000. (By contrast, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers boasts 420,000 members.) But some nations do not have a large enough population, let alone enough engineers, to support an organization focused on one engineering discipline.
To enjoy economies of scale, countries such as Australia and Ireland have consolidated formerly small specialized engineering societies under one non-specific umbrella group. To focus attention on the profession rather than the organization, they have cleverly branded themselves Engineers Ireland and Engineers Australia, thereby also making a choice of preposition moot.
Our own ASEE has also grown in size and influence since its founding in 1893 as the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education (SPEE), a name that emphasized a commitment to education rather than to educators. In the wake of the Morrill Land-Grant Acts, technical higher education became concentrated on agriculture and the mechanical arts (the reason for so many A&Ms). However, scientific and mathematical principles didn’t make up engineering education’s core the way SPEE’s founders believed they should.
When World War II brought a growing emphasis on research, SPEE encouraged its interested members to form the Engineering College Research Association. In 1946, amidst growing concern over further splintering of the society, SPEE and ECRA were merged into a single society, which is today’s ASEE. This natural opportunity to rename the society as being one of engineering educators was not taken. Notably, neither did the temptation of abundant research funding available in the post-war period lead to a society of educators and researchers.
Volunteers ran ASEE until 1961, when a headquarters with full-time staff was established in Washington, D.C. Just as ICE and ASCE influenced the name and purpose of civil engineering societies around the world, ASEE has done the same for engineering education. There is now, for example, an Australasian Association for Engineering Education.
Even the littlest of words matter. Although easily overlooked, they reveal a lot. The full name of the oldest learned society, founded in 1660, has been The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, which contains two prepositions. The object of neither tells us the field of its members nor of their scholarship.
Michael Faraday, whose interests ranged from chemistry to electromagnetism, over the course of five decades held positons at the Royal Society from laboratory assistant to superintendant of the house. Among his legacies is the tradition of educational public lectures. In his Christmas Lectures of 1848 on the chemical history of a candle, he employed burning candles to demonstrate in real time his narrative on combustion science.
The Royal Society’s motto, Nullius in verba (“Take nobody’s word for it”), signifies the resolve to verify, as Faraday did, all claims. In other words, back up theory with experiment. The claims of a professional society can usually be verified by a single preposition.
Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Civil Engineering at Duke University.
Image Courtesy of Catherine Petroski