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The role of engineers is perhaps one of the most misunderstood in society. In any poll asking what engineers do, the responses invariably include “fix cars” and “drive trains.”
But more than 1.8 million US engineers, who will be recognized for their achievements during National Engineers Week, February 17-23, 2013, do much more than that. They plan, design, and direct the manufacture or construction of nearly every element of the world—from microchips to bridges to airplanes. Actually, looking back to the Greeks and Romans can help improve understanding of the scope of an engineer’s work.
John Lienhard, professor of mechanical engineering and history at the University of Houston and host of National Public Radio’s Engines of Our Ingenuity, traces the word engineer to the Latin word ingeniare, which means to devise. Several other words are related to this word, including ingenuity.
The word technology is derived from the Latin word techni. According to Lienhard, “Techni is the art and science of making anything from an engine to an etching. It’s a wonderful word. It acknowledges that engineers and artists are yoked in the same enterprise.”
The word machine is similarly rooted in the arts. It comes from the Greek theater, where the deus ex machina, or “god out of the machine,” appears at the end of the play to solve the problem. Lienhard notes, “That’s what we call any cheap theatrical device. An unexpected god steps out of a clever stage machine to save a hero at the last second. A fairy godmother appears in a puff of smoke to pay the mortgage. It broadly refers to devices that carry out functions.”
“The words science and engine have very different roots. Science comes from the Latin word scienta, which means knowledge. And engine, like engineer, comes from the Latin word, ingeniare. However, engine is one word whose meaning has changed. It used to mean any product of the mind or innate mental power. Today it usually means a physical machine, although the original meaning is sometimes still applied. In computers, a search engine is software that seeks out information. That’s quite a bit different than a car engine,” Lienhard says.
Lienhard notes, “Chaucer once said that our wisdom takes three forms. They are memorie, engin, and intellect. By memorie and intellect, he meant the same things we do. But by engin, he meant creative right-brain wit. He meant invention.”
What can be made of tracing the roots of these words? First, it is interesting to note the connection between art and engineering. Engineers design things to solve problems. And, as Lienhard points out, “beating problems is where creative people find pleasure.”
More important, these roots reveal the scope of an engineer’s duties. New projects and products are developed by combining the functions of techni, science, and invention. Lienhard stresses, “A person earns the title ‘engineer’ when the goal of his or her labors is the actual creative design process- when knowledge of a techni is combined with science to achieve invention.”
Today’s engineers are highly skilled professionals who work in diverse fields. In addition to their technical expertise, the creativity required for the job enables them to maintain contact with these old words. Whether it’s developing new, innovative energy sources, cleaning the environment, sending spacecraft to distant planets, or developing the latest high-tech video game, engineers touch every aspect of our lives. They are responsible for the technological achievements that improve our quality of life and help us compete in an increasingly technological world.