One useful way to think about engineering is as “design under constraint” (Wulf, 1998). One of the constraints is the laws of nature, or science. Engineers designing a solution to a particular problem must, for instance, take into account how physical objects behave while in motion. Other constraints include such things as time, money, available materials, ergonomics, environmental regulations, manufacturability, repairability, and so on.

This somewhat sterile description belies the inherently creative nature of engineering and its contribution to human welfare. As noted in a recent initiative to develop more effective ways of communicating to the public about engineering, engineers “make a world of difference. From new medical equipment and safer drinking water to faster microchips, engineers apply their knowledge to improve people’s lives in concrete, meaningful ways” (NAE, 2008).

This introduction to engineering includes a brief history of engineering and its importance to society, a discussion of some defining features of engineering, and descriptions of relationships between engineering, science, and mathematics. Throughout this chapter, the reader should keep in mind that although engineers are crucial to shaping technology, they collaborate with professionals in many other fields, including scientists, craftspeople who build devices, business people who market and sell products, and a variety of technicians and technologists who are responsible for the operation, maintenance, and repair of devices.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE ENGINEERING PROFESSION

Engineers have been important in every stage of human history, because people have always designed and built tools and other devices. Today, however, the word engineer is used in a more specific sense to refer to a member of the engineering profession, which has evolved over the past 300 to 400 years.1

Origins

Some of the earliest examples of activities we might call engineering can be found in the context of major building projects, such as the construction of the system of aqueducts in and around Rome from the fourth century B.C. to the third century A.D. (Aicher, 1995; Evans, 1994). The aqueducts

1

Much of the following short history of engineering is taken from a commissioned paper by Jonson Miller, Drexel University, a consultant to the project.



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement