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What is Engineering?

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History of Engineering

Find out how engineering began, and how it’s grown

Did you know that civil engineering is one of the oldest fields of engineering?

Think about ancient Rome. You’ve probably seen pictures of Rome’s magnificent architecture such as the Roman Colosseum and the Pantheon. But the Romans also were some of the earliest civil engineers. For example, the Romans:

  • Were some of the first to build roads throughout their empire
  • Built beautiful and functional aqueducts, a system of bridges and canals, used to redirect and bring water into cities

Before the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, there were only two kinds of engineers:

  • Military engineers – who built fortifications, catapults, and later, cannons
  • Civil engineers – who built bridges, harbors, aqueducts, buildings and other structures

During the early 19th century in England, mechanical engineering developed as a separate field to provide manufacturing machines and the engines to power them.

The field of engineering grows

By 1818, the first British professional society of civil engineers was formed, followed by the first professional society of mechanical engineers in 1847.

In the United States, historians mark the evolution of each field of engineering based on the year a professional society was formed:

  • 1852 – civil engineering
  • 1871 – mining and metallurgical engineering
  • 1880 – mechanical engineering
  • 1884 – electrical engineering
  • 1908 – chemical engineering

Aeronautical, industrial, electrical, nuclear, computer, genetic, and biomechanical engineering are more modern developments.

Engineering education in the U.S.

Three schools in the United States were the first to offer an engineering education:

  • 1817 – The U.S. Military Academy (West Point, New York)
  • 1819 – An institution now known as Norwich University (Vermont)
  • 1825 – Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (New York)

An engineering education is based on a strong foundation in math and science. Additional courses emphasize the application of this knowledge to a specific engineering field. Studies in the social sciences and the humanities give the engineer a broader education.