Who was the first engineer? It’s a tricky question to answer. Some sources cite Ailnolth, who lived in the second half of the twelfth century and worked on the Tower of London, as one of the first to be called an ‘ingeniator’. The word comes from the Latin and the Roman writer, Vitruvius, describes master builders as being ingenious or possessing ‘ingenium’. Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) was perhaps the first person to be appointed as an engineer. The Duke of Milan appointed him ‘Ingenarius Ducalis’ or Master of Ingenious Devices.
So it would appear that an engineer is ‘a skilful contriver or originator of something’, which is the third definition in the on-line Oxford Dictionary after ‘a person who designs, builds, or maintains engines, machines or structures’ and ‘a person who controls an engine especially on an aircraft or ship’. This type of engine, which uses heat to do work, is a relatively recent invention probably by Thomas Savery and Thomas Newcomen in the early eighteenth century. Engineers have been contriving, designing and inventing ‘works of public utility’ [quote from my older hard copy Oxford English Dictionary] for many centuries before the heat engine hijacked the terminology.
Why does this matter? Well, many people have a misconception that engineering is all about engines, the heat kind; and yes, some of us do design, build and maintain engines but very many more engineers contrive, design and invent works of public utility – in the broadest sense of the words, i.e. just about everything ‘invented’ in the world. In other words, engineering is using human ingenuity to produce something useful; preferably something that improves the quality of life – oh, but now we are moving into ethics and I will leave that for another day!
Blockley D, Engineering: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Auyang SY, Engineering – an endless frontier, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Little W, Fowler HW & Coulson J, The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, C.T. Onions (editor), London: Guild Publishing, 1983.
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