How many Engineering Ages?

Professor Lisa Jardine of University College London hosted a series of seven programmes on Radio 4 recently. Called “The Seven Ages of Science”, it was a cultural-historical take on the progress of Science through the centuries. There were plenty of thought-provoking angles on what we thought was a fairly well-trodden story.

The Lad is, like many others, concerned and puzzled at the current, image of the profession of engineering in the public prints and public imagination.

Can the Cultural Historian bring some specialised tools or a different standpoint to the story? Has it been done already? Is there a PhD in it for some post-grad or even a radio or TV programme?

Engineering is defined as manipulating forces for our benefit, starting from erecting first shelters through to, take your pick, nuclear power, wind turbines, building CERN machine itself, etc., etc.. Yet many see engineering having only the ’oily rag’ image. Or the image is either vanishing or, at best, subsumed into that of ‘scientists’.

Some vignettes through the Ages could include the contemporary reputation of Roman engineering and engineers (perhaps via Professor Mary Beard); the initial division between scientists and engineers during the Renaissance [or was it later]; engineers in the Lunar Society; commercialisation of the steam engine by Boulton; Edison’s first Applied Science laboratory.

There will be many other vignettes that The Lad has not thought about. After all, he is only an engineer not a cultural historian.

Perhaps a rousing climax could address the claim of some software writers in I.T. to the title of ‘Engineer’. Have they seen it as a derelict title that they quite fancied? From this view, have they then arrogated the title to themselves?

The engineer, when she is working in engineering, uses the physical forces that exist in the natural universe. Thus she is subject to the laws of Newton, Faraday, Carnot, Clausius, Maxwell and others.

The software writer on the other hand is subject to no such Laws. Her work inhabits a different space: a space that is not subject to the same constraints. It is only making marks on paper or specifying switches to be opened or closed.

Her only limitations are those in the ethereal: far boundaries only set by such as Gödel’s theorem on undecidable propositions;é such as Wittgenstein’s statement that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent”; and such as the Kantian ‘phenomenal world’. It is a range so wide that it is almost impossible to imagine other than as ‘anything is possible’.

Look at it another way.

Consider the computer games and the Star Wars films and the Star Trek ships that go to warp speed. They may from their visual complexity make a pretty good fist of looking like a real, complex, space structure. More, at least, than those of Flash Gordon’s V2 like rockets. But have they been designed so that they could work in the real physical world? No they haven’t.

It has been said that if it looks like a duck walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. To some, coding apparently looks like engineering, walks like engineering and sounds to them like engineering, so it is engineering.


Its champions have been mainly brought up in the world of Microsoft and Google; do they know what engineering really is? Whereas coders, logicians, can operate like the pilots of an aerobatic plane, engineers are struggling in the city and its streets. Coding has the glorious flexibility of dreams; engineering needs the stamina of the London Marathon runner.

The Lad is eager to repeat that some Information Technology is engineering. For example the designers of the IC chips that seem endlessly to develop and advance and without which most software projects could not take flight; and much the same is true of the engineers of the marvellous hard disc technology

Professor Lisa, can you offer us a refreshing draught of a new view?

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2 thoughts on “How many Engineering Ages?”

  1. The ages of engineering? Gosh. The lever? Taught as science but surely engineering.

    But let me defend software engineers who are no more coders than engineers are men with oily rags. It is old hat now but read some Grady Booch on Object Oriented Software Design. A mechanical engineering technician I knew years ago said his job is to simplicate and add lightness. Grady says that a software engineer has to create the illusion of simplicity. A professor of Computer Science once told me that software engineering is just a subset but it is no more so than civil engineering is a subset of physics. Perhaps the best distinction I have heard is that scientists strive to understand what is and engineers to create what never was.

    1. Hi Bill,
      Thanks for the thoughtful reply. My comments following are made in a spirit of debate not fight. I can never be hostile to a fellow engineer.
      I missed the lever allusion. Certainly the theory is engineering not just science. But then the Greeks never liked to soil their hands: they left that to slaves.
      OK. Shall I extend ‘coders’ to include ‘systems analysts’ and the like. It must be said in this modern world that IT and its practitioners is VITAL.I distinguish between engineers and not-engineers by their working materials. In summary as I have said before, the common, fundamental feature of engineers is their use of forces in the universe. The working material of the above IT tasks is logic which is a mode of thought not a force [as in a scientific definition]. Of course, Engineers also use logic [and IT] to lubricate their progress: as do all professions.
      I return to the thought of what is common to, say, naval architecture, electrical power engineering, production engineering, prosthesis design, PCB design, bridge design. IMO these [and many others] are intrinsically different to software technology

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