The practical application of mathematics and the pure sciences, such as physics or chemistry, to construct physical objects or develop processes. This standard definition of engineering has its eleventh-century roots in the Latin ingeniator, meaning one with ingenium, the ingenious one (see illustration).
In actual practice, engineering encompasses a broad range of activities that combine rigor with creativity:
- Identification of a problem or a need for a new product or application
- Problem solving or inventing new products or applications
- Making choices among alternatives, including, for example, selecting appropriate materials for specific applications
- Performing economic rationale and analysis, determining costs, and, increasingly, determining environmental impacts of new structures, processes, etc.
- Using experimentation, mathematical analysis, and software to evaluate design concepts and predict success or failure
- Building physical prototypes of physical objects being designed
- Performing experiments and tests to determine efficacies of new designs of structures and machines
- Designing manufacturing processes to build physical objects
- Building physical objects or installing processes
- Measuring physical attributes of built objects and evaluating functioning of processes
- Analysis where failure occurs.
There are 1.6 to 1.7 million employed engineers in the United States, with mechanical, civil, and industrial engineers together making up half of the total, although electrical engineers comprise the largest segment. According to surveys conducted by engineering societies, the profession is robust, with unemployment well below national averages. Salaries have risen somewhat faster than inflation in recent years, with huge spikes found in specialized areas of software engineering in Silicon Valley and in petroleum engineering. Not quite 240,000 U.S. engineering bachelor’s degrees are awarded annually. China, Russia, and developing nations are said to be catching up to or exceeding U.S. totals. Such statements are unreliable, however, as not all of these graduates have skills comparable to those of U.S. engineers. See also: Civil engineering; Electrical engineering; Industrial engineering; Mechanical engineering; Petroleum engineering; Software engineering
Engineers work in systematic ways, supported by research journals, books, software packages, the Internet, computer systems, laptops, tablets, and mobile phones. Sometimes they work in large hierarchical teams, with each engineer assigned to a specific task or with a specific responsibility. Some projects are interdisciplinary in nature; they require contributions from practitioners with backgrounds and expertise in different disciplines. Some university departments in new fields have faculty rosters that include professors who reside in traditional departments.
Historical development of engineering
In historical terms, engineering work before the scientific revolution included building ancient monuments and civic structures, a few of which, such as Egyptian pyramids and Roman baths and aqueducts, still survive. Engineering was divided into military and civilian spheres. Technical work on armaments and fortifications was done in service to royalty and other rulers. Nonmilitary devices were imagined by practical artists and artisans, who turned their ideas into reality by trial and error. By the Renaissance, they began to approach engineering issues more systematically.
Modern engineering began to emerge during the industrial revolution (1760–1840), which began essentially with James Watt’s improvement of the steam engine. It powered machines that replaced muscle, wind, and water power in factories. Developing and servicing machines required that artisans transform themselves into, or be replaced by, skilled, knowledgeable professionals. In essence, the discipline of mechanical engineering had to take hold, and leading scientists and educators eventually saw the need for establishing educational institutions where aspiring engineers could be trained. See also: Steam engine
The nineteenth century, particularly from around 1870 on, saw the founding of engineering schools, which were a radical departure from traditional liberal-arts schools, which emphasized classics and religious studies, throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, there were four main engineering disciplines: chemical, civil, electrical, and mechanical. Recognizing a need for improved communication and other interaction among themselves and for outside audiences, engineers working in these disciplines formed professional societies, eventually with vigorous publishing programs, featuring most prominently research journals and industrial codes and standards. As engineers within these four broad disciplines became engaged in specialized activities in response to the rise of new inventions, technologies, and methodologies, they formed separate divisions within the four initial societies, as well as new, more targeted societies, which more closely adhered to their own particular interests.
In the twentieth century, engineers designed and managed mass production and distribution systems for an impressive array of labor-saving consumer products and household machines. They contributed to the rise of the chemical, pharmaceutical, electronic, and telecommunications industries; production of massive cargo ships, passenger liners, aircraft, and automotive road vehicles; building the U.S. interstate highway system during the Eisenhower era (railroads ruled the nineteenth and early twentieth century); as well as developing ever more powerful and terrifying weapons of war. See also: Electrical engineering; Highway engineering; Transportation engineering
With the Cold War and the 1957 Soviet Sputnik launch, engineering boomed. University engineering departments expanded their graduate education programs. Research and development flourished on a national level throughout the developed world. While there was still opportunity in sheds and garages for inventors and tinkerers to thrive, most engineering practice moved from such small, idiosyncratic workshops to larger facilities where systematic activities predominated. In both settings, engineers furthered the development of automation; jet travel; space vehicles; medical diagnostic machinery; advanced, high-performance materials; microelectronics, computers, and mobile phones; and the information revolution in which manual and intellectual workers are increasingly being replaced by intelligent machines. Responding to this accelerating change in the lives of millions of people throughout the world is one of the main challenges that the engineering profession, together with policy makers and others, will face all too soon. See also: Aeronautical engineering; Intelligent machine; Materials science and engineering
Climate change will pose other engineering challenges. The rise of sea levels will require flood barriers to protect coastal cities and other vulnerable areas, which have already experienced the effects of massive storms. Burgeoning alternative energy industries, as well as efforts to mitigate deleterious environmental effects of continued burning of fossil fuels, will continue to need engineering help. See also: Energy sources; Global climate change; Sea-level rise
The Internet has been both boon and bane. It is an invaluable research source. Publishers use the Internet to provide information to engineers and other professionals and students at their work stations, tablets, or mobile phones so they can seamlessly integrate it into their daily work. Unfortunately, bad actors also use the Web. It will take a great deal of engineering talent to help those who control social media and other platforms to prevent such usage from proliferating further. See also: Computer security
An additional challenge is in healthcare. Biomedical engineers, together with other engineering professionals, biologists, chemists, and physicians, are working to improve diagnostic techniques and therapies. There is no end to such opportunities. See also: Biomedical engineering