What is Engineering?

The words engine and ingenious are derived from the same Latin root, ingenerare, which means “to create.” The early English verb engine meant “to contrive.” Thus the engines of war were devices such as catapults, floating bridges, and assault towers; their designer was the “engine-er,” or military engineer. The counterpart of the military engineer was the civil engineer, who applied essentially the same knowledge and skills to designing buildings, streets, water supplies, sewage systems, and other projects.

Associated with engineering is a great body of special knowledge; preparation for professional practice involves extensive training in the application of that knowledge. Standards of engineering practice are maintained through the efforts of professional societies, usually organized on a national or regional basis, with each member acknowledging a responsibility to the public over and above responsibilities to his employer or to other members of his society.

The function of the scientist is to know, while that of the engineer is to do. The scientist adds to the store of verified, systematized knowledge of the physical world; the engineer brings this knowledge to bear on practical problems. Engineering is based principally on physics, chemistry, and mathematics and their extensions into materials science, solid and fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, transfer and rate processes, and systems analysis.

Unlike the scientist, the engineer is not free to select the problem that interests him; he must solve problems as they arise; his solution must satisfy conflicting requirements. Usually efficiency costs money; safety adds to complexity; improved performance increases weight. The engineering solution is the optimum solution, the end result that, taking many factors into account, is most desirable. It may be the most reliable within a given weight limit, the simplest that will satisfy certain safety requirements, or the most efficient for a given cost. In many engineering problems the social costs are significant.

Engineers employ two types of natural resources—materials and energy. Materials are useful because of their properties: their strength, ease of fabrication, lightness, or durability; their ability to insulate or conduct; their chemical, electrical, or acoustical properties. Important sources of energy include fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, gas), wind, sunlight, falling water, and nuclear fission. Since most resources are limited, the engineer must concern himself with the continual development of new resources as well as the efficient utilization of existing ones.

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