Human beings have been adjusting their environment to better suit their needs and wants even prior to recorded history. There have forever been people who designed and built tools or other devices to resolve problems or improve lives.

In prehistoric times, men and women had to be ingenious in order to survive hunger, enemies, climate and, later, the tyranny of distance. So, there have always been “engineers” around, many of whom were involved in activities we would not normally associate with engineering today. Rather, they were involved in hunting, farming, fishing, fighting, implement and toolmaking, transportation and many other such endeavors.

As civilizations progressed, people began remaking their environment with villages, ships, roads and eventually magnificent cities. With each enhancement came new challenges that involved more intricate and further creative solutions.

One early example of an activity that we now identify as engineering was the construction and improvement of the aqueduct system that transported water in and around Rome starting in the fourth century BC. A project of that scope today would be principally the responsibility of engineers.

The profession we know as engineering today actually emerged during the 1500s when specialists began sourcing mathematics to design military fortifications. These special military architects would generally let craftsmen do the actual construction, thus becoming the first true engineers in the modern sense.

The word “engineering”

As we’ve noted, the notion of engineering has endured since ancient times as humans concocted basic inventions such as the pulley, lever and wheel.

The term engineering itself has a more recent etymology, deriving from the word engineer, which itself dates back to 1325, when an engine’er (literally, one who operates the engine) originally referred to as “a constructor of military engines.” In this context, now obsolete, an “engine” referred to a military machine, i.e., a mechanical contraption used in war (for example, a catapult). The counterpart of the military engineer was the civil engineer, who employed basically the same knowledge and skills to designing buildings, streets, water supplies, sewage systems and other such projects.

The word “engine” itself is of even older origin, ultimately derived from the Latin ingenium, meaning “innate quality, especially mental power, hence a clever invention.”

Ancient Era

From approximately 3000 BC, the speed of development quickened. Simple tools were followed with the development of wedges, wheels and levers, plus the use of animals to carry and draw loads and of fire to work metals, plus the digging of irrigation canals and open pit mining.

The first engineer known by name and accomplishment is Imhotep, builder of the Step Pyramid in Egypt, probably around 2550 BC. His successors – Egyptian, Persian, Greek and Roman – moved civil engineering to remarkable heights on the basis of empirical methods assisted by arithmetic, geometry and a smattering of physical science.

The Greeks made significant contributions in the 1000 years that overlapped the BC-AD divide. They produced the screw, the ratchet, the water wheel and the aeolpile, better known as Hero’s turbine.

The Acropolis and Parthenon in Greece, the Colosseum and aqueducts in Rome and the Persian and Roman road systems, plus many other such well-known structures, some of which still exist today, attest to their skill, imagination and daring. Other monuments no longer standing, such as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria, were critical engineering accomplishments of their time and considered among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The Antikythera mechanism, the first known mechanical computer and the mechanical inventions of Archimedes are examples of early mechanical engineering. Some of Archimedes’ inventions as well as the Antikythera mechanism necessitated complex know-how of differential gearing or epicyclic gearing, two key principles in machine theory that helped design the gear trains of the Industrial Revolution and are still used today in distinct fields such as robotics and automotive engineering.

At the other end of the world, the Chinese have been credited with the development of the wheelbarrow, the rotary fan, the sternpost rudder that guided their bamboo rafts and, eventually, the junks. They also began making paper from vegetable fibers, and, of course, gunpowder.

Middle Era

An Iraqi by the name of al-Jazari helped prompt the design of today’s modern machines when sometime between 1174 and 1200 he assembled five machines to pump water for the kings of the Turkish Artuqid dynasty and their palaces.

The double-acting reciprocating piston pump was influential in the progress of engineering on the whole because it was the first machine to integrate the connecting rod and the crankshaft, transforming rotational motion to reciprocating motion.

British Charter Engineer Donald Routledge once wrote: “It is impossible to over emphasize the importance of al-Jazari’s work in the history of engineering. It provides a wealth of instruction for the design, manufacture and assembly of machines.”

Even today, a number of toys still use the cam-lever mechanism located in al-Jazari’s combination lock and automation. Along with over 50 imaginative mechanical devices, he also expanded and made improvements to segmental gears, mechanical controls, engagement mechanisms, clocks, robotics and protocols for designing and manufacturing methods.

These so-called “Dark Ages” still fashioned things that were ingenious. For example, there was the improvement of the mechanical clock and the art of printing; there was also the method of heavy iron casting that could be employed to products for war, religion and industry – for guns, church bells and machinery.

In construction, European engineers carried technique, in the form of the Gothic arch and flying buttress, to a height unfamiliar to the Romans. The sketchbook of the 13 century French engineer Villard de Honnecourt illustrates a broad array of knowledge of mathematics, geometry, natural and physical science, and draftsmanship.

In Asia, engineering had a separate but comparable development with more and more high-level methods of construction, hydraulics and metallurgy helping to produce advanced societies such as the Mongol empire whose sizeable, elegant cities amazed Marco Polo in the 13th century.

Renaissance era

These Dark Ages were followed by the Renaissance of the 16th century, which the engineer/inventor/artist Leonardo Da Vinci overshadowed. However, this entire period came under the guidance of architect/engineers, who built splendid cathedrals and other magnificent buildings and the military engineer who built castles and fortifications.


The first electrical engineer of the era is considered to be William Gilbert, with his 1600 publication of De Magnete, and who was also the originator of the term “electricity.”

The first steam engine was built in 1698 by mechanical engineer Thomas Savery. The expansion of this apparatus gave rise to the Industrial Revolution in the coming decades, leading to the origins of mass production.

Modern era

With the growth of engineering as a profession in the 18th century, the term came to be more narrowly applied to fields wherein mathematics and science were employed to these ends. Moreover, in addition to military and civil engineering, the field then identified as the mechanic arts was integrated into engineering.

Electrical engineering can track its growth in the experiments of Alessandro Volta in the 1800s, the experiments of Michael Farady, Georg Ohm and others, plus the invention of the electric motor in 1872.

The work of James Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz in the later part of the century gave rise to the field of Electronics. The subsequent inventions of the vacuum tube and the transistor hastened the development of Electronics to such an extent that electrical and electronics engineers outnumbered their colleagues in any other engineering specialty.

Civil engineers of the 19th century-built structures of all types, designed water-supply and sanitation systems, laid out railroad and highway networks and planned cities.

England and Scotland were the source of modern mechanical engineering, as a result of the inventions of the Scottish engineer James Watt and the textile machines of the Industrial Revolution. The expansion of the British machine tool industry gave incredible momentum to the study of mechanical engineering in Britain and abroad.

Chemical engineering, much similar to its counterpart Mechanical Engineering, widened in the nineteenth century during the industrial Revolution. Industrial scale manufacturing required new materials and innovative processes, so by 1880 the demand for large scale production of chemicals was such that another industry was fashioned, devoted to large-scale manufacturing of chemicals in new industrial plants. The role of the chemical engineer was the design of these chemical plants and processes.

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, new processing techniques, most notably for steel and petroleum, remade transportation, construction and manufacturing. Scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs thrived, and “game-changing” technologies emerged in a variety of industries.

Progress was achieved in all areas, including technologies that altered routine activities. For example, in:

  • 1851, Isaac Singer patents a continuous stitch sewing machine
  • 1868, Christopher Sholes patents the first everyday typewriter
  • 1873, Andrew Hallidie invents cable cars for the streets of San Francisco
  • 1874, Joseph Glidden invents barbed wire
  • 1876, Alexander Graham Bell patents the telephone
  • 1884, Lewis Waterman patents a practical fountain pen

It was during the late 1800s that inventors began aligning with the engineering processes and the engineering profession started to split into distinct disciplines, such as civil, mechanical and electrical engineering.

Of course, there were others to emerge. As a prime example, aeronautical engineering dealt with aircraft design while Aerospace engineering is a more contemporary expression that expands the reach envelope of the field by including spacecraft design.

Its origins can be tracked back to the aviation pioneers around the turn from the 19th to the 20th century primarily through the work of Sir George Cayley who instituted the modern design of an airplane as a fixed-wing flying machine with distinct systems for lift, propulsion and control as early as 1799. In 1804, he actually flew the first successful glider model of which there is any record.

Early knowledge of aeronautical engineering was chiefly empirical with certain ideas and skills brought in from other branches of engineering. Merely a decade after the Wright Brothers’ successes, the 1920s saw widespread development of aeronautical engineering via the expansion and improvement of World War I aircraft. In the meantime, research to offer essential background science continued by combining theoretical physics with experiments.

In the 20th century, engineering literally electrified the nation. It took us into the sky and into outer space. It gave us automobiles and highways on which to drive them. It made our waters cleaner and safer and transformed how we produce food.

Engineers made our homes more comfortable and efficient, with appliances that saved both time and money. It connected us through the telephone, radio and television and gave us new ways to see ourselves, and the world, with a variety of imaging technologies.

And all of this was prior to the computer and the internet!

Looking forward

Engineers are helping feed and sustain an ever more urban world population that could reach 10 billion by 2050. They are working to help make sure that all people have access to clean, fresh water and suitable shelter.

Engineers today are creating safe, efficient and renewable forms of energy. They are helping better our health with more effectual drugs and medical treatments. They are working to design new and stronger ways of creating, storing and using information.

Engineers are now and will continue to be essential to advancing technologies that will allow us to work, learn and play in new and thought-provoking ways.