Follow the Money

Once upon a time, long before the title of a Chartered Engineer was even a twinkle in its Daddy’s eye, the MIMechE’s and the AMIMechE’s ruled the mechanical engineering roost, and the Institute of Mechanical Engineers required The Lad to study “The Engineer in Society”. They had in mind to make the tyro engineer look up from his drawing board and slide rule and to recognise that he needed to know that were other aspects to the world.

He had to learn about what motivated a work force. That he had to have scruples and not seek to diddle others. There were some economic aspects to engineering.

Stuff like that.

Nowadays, the Institutions and the Engineering Council rely on the Universities to cover that. Which they duly do, see

The Lad did not think that they had quite got it nailed then and still does not. The twin of or undercurrent to the profession is wider than that. It is Commerce. It goes as far back as engineering if you consider the Roman Empire with its civil engineering of aqueducts and its commerce across the Empire.

Others have said that an engineer is someone who makes something for a dollar that anyone can make for five dollars. Though over-simple, it emphasises an important point. For the real engineer, economics is intimately bound up with the physical forces with which he or she wrestles. Engineering is ancient but so also is the trading that generates the wealth that funds it.

The Assassination at Bruges

Bruges in the 1120’s was already an amazingly thriving and bustling centre of trade for the whole of Northern Europe. It generated new wealth where it traded in wool, cloth, furs and jewellery. Count Charles the Good was the man who administered the rule of law in all Bruges that so facilitated the storm of trade. You can be sure that, in this financial ferment, engineers would have been busy designing ships, harbours and port machinery to keep the pot boiling.

On Wednesday 2 March, 1127, the Count was assassinated leading to great fears about its effect on trade. We know that the terrible news reached the merchants in London in only 2 days having been carried a distance as the crow flies of 150 miles. This distance, mind, was entirely over the wintry, wild North Sea covered under sail; no mean feat even today. The Lad finds this so remarkable in that it was only 60 years after the Battle of Hastings and King Henry I was on the English throne.

The Seljuk Sultans

While Bruges was in the north east of Europe, in the far south east of Europe where it butted up against Asia, there were the Seljuk Turks. Their enlightened, tolerant government and culture was at its height in the mid-1200s. The Seljuk Empire spanned the ancient trade routes of Anatolia, the famous Silk Road, the camel trails along which the riches of Persia and China were carried to the markets of Europe, and vice-versa.

With trade came wealth, so the Seljuk sultans worked to encourage, increase and protect commerce by road. They improved roads and had their civil engineers and builders build hundreds of beautiful caravanserais to encourage trade with the east.

These huge stone buildings were made to shelter the caravaneers, their camels, horses and donkeys, and their cargoes, to keep them safe from highwaymen and to provide needed travel services.

The typical Seljuk caravanserai is a huge square or rectangular building with high walls of local stone. There are fine images at .

Through the main portal, you pass the room of the caravanserai’s manager and enter a large courtyard. Around the sides of the courtyard, built into the walls, are the service rooms: refectory, treasury, Turkish bath, repair shops, etc.

At the far end of the courtyard from the main portal is the grand hall, a huge vaulted hall usually with a nave and three side aisles. The hall is usually lit by slit windows in the stone walls and a cupola above the nave. The hall sheltered goods and caravaneers during bad winter weather.

Caravans were received into the caravanserai each evening, and were welcome to stay free for three days. Food, fodder and lodging were provided free of charge, funded by endowments courtesy of the building’s wealthy Seljuk founder who had also given money for the building’s construction and for its maintenance.

Our Twenty First Century Motorway Service Stations do not benefit from the comparison!

The Merchant of Prato and the Milanese

‘The Merchant of Prato: Francesco Di Marco Datini: Daily Life in a Medieval Italian City by Iris Origo’ is one of the earlier classics of the literature in this field of economic history. It tells how the Merchant began in 1350 his path to a commercial fortune. In 1350 Edward III was on the throne of England and was a power in Western Europe.

 “While kings and princes grappled and made alliances and betrayed and made other alliances, then grappled again, the merchants established their own quietly competent international estate.”

In another book ‘Hawkwood’ by Frances Stonor Saunders there is a pithy, summary of the situation only 10 years later.

Milan was favoured by the merchants who trafficked goods between Lombardy and the great fairs of Champagne and Lyon. It was the merchants who had organised the routes through the Alps, collaborating with local authorities to police the roads, erect bridges and establish posts high in the mountains where their members could find protection from weather and brigands.

All this was referring to Chaucerian times in and around the year 1360.

Note that Stonor goes on, in another accurate summary raising the shades of the contemporary engineers, to write

Milan’s trade was her lifeblood, and her bloody trade was arms, which evolved through access to locally produced iron, large quantities of charcoal from Alpine stands of timber, and the fast-flowing streams to operate tilt hammers and polishing mills.

The relationship of engineering to the Military-Industrial Complex of Eisenhower in the 20 Century foreshadowed here is an important topic that needs to be addressed in another post.


Merchants and commerce are those who engineer the economics of our world into some sort of working order. Then Banking and its offshoots of derivative trading appear and are tending to de-stabilise economic activity.

Despite this, just remember the intimate involvement of engineering and commerce. Argue, if you want, whether commerce is the tool of engineering or engineering is the tool of commerce. Alternatively, symbiosis could be argued. The Lad unsurprisingly holds strongly to the primacy of engineering.

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