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The evolving engineer

From the pyramids of Egypt to Parliament Hill in Ottawa, the history of engineering tells the history of humanity.

From the pyramids of Egypt to Parliament Hill in Ottawa, the history of engineering tells the history of humanity.

Marie Carter, Engineers Canada’s chief operating officer, said engineering only became a modern profession in the last century. It was born out of disaster, when a bridge built to cross the Saint Lawrence River collapsed in 1907. An engineering mistake was to blame and it cost the lives of 75 people. An incident in 1916 claimed more lives.

“The Canadian Society of Civil Engineers determined, ‘We need to do something about this,’” Carter said from her Ottawa office. “‘We need to have some checks and balances on who does engineering. They need to be properly trained.’”

Throughout the 1920s, engineering became increasingly regulated and the tradition of the Iron Ring was born. Originally built from the ruins of the Quebec bridge and now fashioned from stainless steel, each Canadian engineering student is presented a ring in a somber ceremony accompanying graduation.

Carter said scientific “trial and error” steadily improved the building blocks engineers use to build our world ever since.

“Just about everything that you see, do, touch, have as recreation, live with, use to eat, even the food, has got engineering involved in it,” she said. “Engineers do touch just about every aspect of the way we live.”

Allan Marble has seen the discipline transformed in his 50-plus years as an engineer, but it’s not hard for the professor emeritus at Halifax’s Dalhousie University to sum up what changed: The computer.

When Marble attended Dalhousie in the 1950s, it was a computer-free land. He vividly remembers the first time he saw a computer in 1962. It was primordial and clunky, but it revolutionized engineering.

In today’s wired world, it seems hard to imagine slide rulers doing the job of computers, and that’s because they didn’t.

“It’s an amazing change, really,” Marble said over the phone from his Halifax home, adding that it’s especially transformed electrical engineering.

“You’re trying to analyze signals coming from various sources,” he explains. “To do that before the computer, you had to do it by hand.”

Now, a computer can work in real time at speeds well beyond human ability.

Computers made it possible for engineers to develop life-saving CT scanners and MRIs. “The amount of calculations done to get a CT image or an MRI image is just mind-boggling. Those things could never be done before the computer,” he said.

 
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