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What is Engineering?



Hand holding pencil over transistor, and slide rule
Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Photo of a hand holding a pencil over transistor and slide rule


Engineers use the laws of nature to create and refine the artifacts of modern life. They seek, through ingenuity and invention, to fashion a more livable world. Two dictionaries provide the following definitions of engineering:

“... the application of scientific knowledge about matter and energy for practical human uses such as construction, machinery, products, or systems.”

Academic Press dictionary of science and technology. San Diego,
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, c1992. p.749. Q123.A33 1992 <SciRR>

“ ... the science by which the properties of matter and the sources of power in nature are made useful to humans in structures, machines, and products.”

McGraw-Hill dictionary of scientific and technical terms.
6th ed. New York, McGraw-Hill, c2003. p. 722. Q123.M15 2002 <SciRR>

Joseph W. Barker gives a more detailed description of engineering in the McGraw-Hill encyclopedia of engineering (2nd ed. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1993. pages 409-410. <TA9.M36 1993 SciRR>). The following excerpt defines engineering and its various subfields:

    “Most simply, the art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and the convenience of humans. In its modern form engineering involves people, money, materials, machines, and energy. It is differentiated from science because it is primarily concerned with how to direct to useful and economical ends the natural phenomena which scientists discover and formulate into acceptable theories. Engineering therefore requires above all the creative imagination to innovate useful applications of natural phenomena. It is always dissatisfied with present methods and equipment. It seeks newer, cheaper, better means of using natural sources of energy and materials to improve the standard of living and to diminish toil.

   Traditionally there were two divisions or disciplines, military engineering and civil engineering. As knowledge of natural phenomena grew and the potential civil applications became more complex, the civil engineering discipline tended to become more and more specialized. The practicing engineer began to restrict operations to narrower channels. For instance, civil engineering came to be concerned primarily with static structures, such as dams, bridges, and buildings, whereas mechanical engineering split off to concentrate on dynamic structures, such as machinery and engines. Similarly, mining engineering became concerned with the discovery of, and removal from, geological structures of metalliferous ore bodies, whereas metallurgical engineering involved extraction and refinement of the metals from the ores. From the practical applications of electricity and chemistry, electrical and chemical engineering arose.

   This splintering process continued as narrower specialization became more prevalent. Civil engineers had more specialized training as structural engineers, dam engineers, water-power engineers, bridge engineers; mechanical engineers as machine-design engineers, industrial engineers, motive-power engineers; electrical engineers as power and communication engineers (and the latter divided eventually into telegraph, telephone, radio, television, and radar engineers, whereas the power engineers divided into fossil-fuel and nuclear engineers); mining engineers as metallic-ore mining engineers and fossil-fuel mining engineers (the latter divided into coal and petroleum engineers).”

Kemper, John Dustin, and Billy R. Sanders. Engineers and their profession. 5th ed. New York, Oxford University Press, 2001. 346 p.
   TA157.K4 2001
   Includes bibliographical references.

Kemper, John Dustin. Introduction to the engineering profession. 2nd ed. Fort Worth, Tex., Saunders College Pub., c1993. 622 p.
   TA157.K423 1993 <SciRR>

What is Engineering?
   This website from the Whiting School of Engineers at Johns Hopkins University offers an introduction to basic engineering concepts, allows you to conduct experiments in a virtual laboratory, and describes hands-on projects…helping you to discover just what engineering is all about.

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   February 24, 2017
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