Graham Nasby's Online Resources


So you wanna be an Engineer?

[The Iron Ring]

So you think you want an iron ring...
You know they don't give these rings to just anyone!

First Things, First...

Apparently, Engineering is supposed to be hard... and it is! Studying enginering in school is brutal. It is one of those things that if you really want it, you will do what ever it takes. Here at Guelph we have a motto "GO HARD, OR GO HOME" We live by this motto! (I'm not kidding.) If you are considering studying engineering and/or want to know more about it, this is the page for you. Have a look and see what those crazy engineers are up to... Now lets, get on with it!

What is an Engineer?

Engineer (en je 'nir) n.  An individual who is able to produce, with prolific abandon, streams of incomprehensible formulae based upon extremely vague assumptions and theories based on debatable figures acquired from inconclusive tests and incomplete experiments, carried out with instruments of problematic accuracy by persons of doubtful reliability and rather dubious mentality with the particular anticipation of disconcerting and annoying everyone outside of their own profession. [source unknown]

The word "Engineer" comes from the Latin word ingenium meaning "talent, genius, cleverness, or native ability". The first engineers, not "Professional Engineers" (which is what what engineering are now known as), were people who designed weapons of war. The term Engineer, up until around the late 1700's, was synonymous with Military Engineer. Since the late 1800's, the proverbial "Engineer" has been known as a Professional Engineer.

Most people, however, refer to Professional Engineers, just as"Engineers" for short. Engineering is a professional vocation. Engineers are highly trained people who must possess specialized licenses and belong to engineering societies in order to practice. It is against the law for someone who is not trained and does not an Engineering License to practice.

There are other careers traditionally fall under the title "engineer", but are not related to "Professional Engineers". These professions are allowed to use the title of engineer because their use of the term predates the establishment of Professional Engineering as a formal profession. These "engineers who aren't engineers" include:

  • the engineer that drives a train (sorry folks!)
  • stationary engineers
  • ship's engineer
  • military engineers*
  • recording engineers
  • sound engineers
  • software engineers**
  • network engineers**

In England, car mechanics are often called engineers as well. However for all of these "engineers that aren't engineers", each of these titles are based on longstanding tradition and are still used for that reason. These are all good jobs but these people are not "Professional Engineers".

* - Miltary Engineers fall into quite a different category. The job of the military engineer is one that builds and demolishes structures and systems for the military's needs. Military engineers also are increasingly used to provide civil engineering services in time of emergency, both home and abroad. Many military engineers go onto become civil and electrical engineers after they leave the service.

(** - A computer programmer/technician is not an engineer! The information technology sector does not have a tradition behind them to call their practictioners engineers and should not use the term. To do so is unethical, and not to mention illegal. The Canadian Engineering Act is very strict about this, and this is constantly being echoed in the courts.
There is, however, one exception and that is where a P.Eng. has been trained specifically in software engineering. Some schools are now starting to offer real CEAB-approved (engineering) degrees in software engineering as well.)

Now that we know what we are talking about when we say engineer, let's move on to what engineers do: to put it simply: engineers design things. A better way of putting it is to say: engineers apply science and theory via practical application and design for the betterment of their clients and society itself. Engineers also have a great responsibility to uphold the highest standards in ethics, rigour/robustness of design, rational thinking, and most importantly public safety.

Past U.S. President Herbert Hoover, described the profession of engineering very eloquently in his 1954 speech: "Engineering as a Profession".

Engineering is a noble profession with a long progressive history that continues evolve as our society changes and modernizes further every year.

How to become an Engineer

There are two ways to become qualified to be a Professional Engineer in Ontario:

  • Take an engineering degree [B.Sc.(Eng)] at an accredited university
  • Take a series of at least 20 three-hour exams to gain entry to the profession (this is rarely done anymore, but used to be done quite frequently in industry)

(The qualification process is almost exactly the same throughout Canada and for the rest of world.)

After becoming qualified, you must have a minimum of 4 years of supervised experience as a Engineer In Training. During this time you cannot make final decisions or stamp/seal drawings. You must also be a Canadian Citizen or have Permanent Resident status (i.e. be able to work in Canada). You must also be of "Good Character" as determined by the PEO (Professional Engineers, Ontario), the engineering association for Ontario.

After all of these requirements have been met, prospective engineers must write and pass an ethics exam. After successfully completeing the exam, they are awarded their Engineering License and then are allowed to practice.

Most people go to an accredited university and take a co-op version of an engineering degree. That way they can count their co-op work terms towards the required 4 years of experience.

Most schools say that their programs take 4 years to complete--students who believe this are just kidding themselves. Because of the scope and depth of material that must be learned, the majority of students take 5 or 6 years to complete their studies [author: as I am].

A Note to Prospective Engineering Students

So now you're in highschool, or out in the job market, and considering enlisting in an engineering program to become a Professional Engineer?

It's a lot of work, but it's well worth it!

Engineering is a wonderful profession. In industry, your job will be constantly changing and you will met with new challenges every day. You will be bridging the gap between science, theory and practical application. It is the job of engineers to plan, design and implement projects ranging from the smallest consumer item to the largest of industrial processes. You will be constantly thinking and re-thinking everything you do. It is an exciting job, but it not a profession for the feable-minded or lazy.

Engineering is one of the harder programs you can take in university. At Guelph, engineering students take 6 courses a semester instead of the usual 5 because there is so much material that must be learnt and mastered. A solid foundation of knowledge is vital for the production of good designs and making sound technical decisions. These are skills that engineers must constantly use.

Engineering isn't for everyone. Of my original frosh class of 160, just a little over 100 of us are left. The others either discovered engineering wasn't for them or changed their mind and transfered to other programs. Engineering is not impossible, but it is tough. While studying engineering you will probably work the hardest and be the most productive you will ever be in your entire life. However, when it's all done, the feeling of accomplishment will be one of the best you have ever had.

(Unfortunately, many engineers have the egotist attitude that engineering is the best profession and anyone not in engineering is just not "worthy". Engineering is not the beginning and end-all for everyone, it's just a job and nothing more. The author has the opinion that properly mastering an liberal arts program is even more difficult than engineering.)

So what sort of people become engineers? Here's a few crucial qualities that I think would help:

  • You like calculus (or at least don't hate it *that* much) and don't mind using it for the rest of your life
  • You like designing things and figuring out how stuff works
  • You looks around the world and see something and then wonder "I wonder how that works..."
  • You were the kid who went to Disney World and tried to figure out the automina in "It's a Small World" worked
  • You like working on projects and showing others what you have done (talking to people, reports, presentations, etc.)
  • You like working in groups with like-minded people
  • When you learn things, you are always interested in how it could be applied to solve a problem
  • You are willing to go the extra distance to make sure something is done right the first time
  • You understand the importance of "details"
  • You have a sense of humour and like to have a good time

Engineering at Guelph

Guelph is a small engineering school, yet it is the second oldest engineering school in Canada. Guelph Engineering is celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2000. In those over 125 years, Guelph has grown from it's small argicultural roots to an internationally recognized program in that area as well as rigorous studies in other fields of engineering.

With slightly more than 500 students, Guelph has a friendly atmosphere where you get to know all your profs and everyone who is in the school. Unlike larger schools, professors see you as a "person" and not just a "number". Our TA's are nicer and you actaully get to know people. Plus our faculty are very active in the engineering community and can help you make lots of contacts. If you are looking for something which you think can only be found a big school, think again! Most of our profs got their degrees from the bigger schools and constantly incorporate all that they have learned into their teaching. We have a co-op program as well, which some students have had good luck with.

Undergraduate studies in Engineering are among the hardest and most intense programs in post-secondary education. Every school which offers an engineering program must be certified by the Canadian Engineering Accrediation Board (CEAB) which has rigorous guidelines and regulations. For this reason it does not matter where you get your undergraduate degree from. If you think you should go to a big school, with the idea of using their reputation to bolster the worth of our degree, you are just kidding yourself.

Guelph is a has a small friendly and rigorous school of engineering. It combines the best of a small school setting, with vast resources and an active faculty.

Why an Iron Ring?

Since 1922, Canadian Professional Engineers must take a voluntary oath written by Rudyard Kipling called the "Obligation of the Engineer". After a student graduates from an engineering program they are invited to take the oath. The oath is taken a special secret ceremony duirng either April or May each year which is preformed by the "The Corporation of the Seven Wardens". The ceremony is not open to the general public, but the "Wardens" allow non-university engineers to participate as well. The scheduling and officiation duties of the "Ritual of the Calling of the Engineer" are carried out by "The Corportation of the Seven Wardens" which is an organization which is separate from the universities and any Engineering Societies. After the completion of the ceremony, the new engineer is given a wrought-iron ring to wear on the little finger of their "working" hand.

The idea of giving out a ring can be traced back to England. In England Professional Engineers are called Chartered Engineers instead. The English have been giving their engineers iron rings since the near the end of the 1800s. The wrought-iron that their rings are made from come from a set of spare links that were made for Thomas Telfod's Menai Straight Bridge. Thomas Telford was the first of what became known as the great British Engineers. His wrought-iron bridge was a major achievement in the late 1700s, which still stands today carrying road and rail traffic.

The iron rings given out in Canada are made from the wreckage that was left after the disasterous failure of the Quebec City Bridge on August 29, 1907. The bridge collapse claimed almost a hundred lives of the work crew that had not even finished building it. The massive failure was due to many factors ranging from bad materials, shoddy workmanship and design problems. However, the most signficant factor was that the design itself was defective. The iron ring given to Canadian Engineers reminds them of their obligation to society to uphold the highest standards of design and ethics.

The first Iron Ring Cremony was held in 1925 at the University of Toronto for their graduating engineering class. Ever since, the ceremony has been held throughout Canada for the various Schools of Engineering.

It ALL Started with an Scotsman1 named Thomas Telford

Since I am a Canadian, a proud member of the British Commenwealth and my family is of English decent, the history is presented hereafter is based on a British context. Most other nations/empires underwent similar developments in this time, but I am going to focus on the Canadian prespective of the rise of modern engineering as it originated in England: "The workshop of the world.".

The first engineers were not engineers in the modern perspective as we know them. Since ancient times, people called engineers worked alongside with the military to design and build weaspons of war. The name Engineer was synonymous with Military Engineer. Only with the Renaissance, did the focus of these individuals turn to designing things for socity. The concept of civil engineering started to evolve, but not by that name. The designers of civil projects were known simply as Designers. Sometimes the term Civil Engineer was used, but it had no professional or special qualities associated with it. Engineers of the time were still only really concerned with designing weapons of war.

As the Industrial Revolution spawned and began to grow, Engineering as a profession still did not exist. The individuals who were essentially everything that we would now call engineers were still simply called Inventors and/or Designers.

In civil projects the major accomplishments were the building of bridges as the railways began to be built in the early to late 1800's. Massive structures were required to span the great valleys and inlets of England. Major advances in materials, particularly in the manufacturing of new types of iron and steel, enabled designers to take on projects that were though to be impossible up until this point.

The first major Engineering Triumph for what we would consider a modern project was a bridge. It was a a bridge constructed entirely of wrought-iron designed by an Scotsman named Thomas Telford, that spanned the Menai Straight. Up until this point, most structures were built using masonary and the use of wrought-iron represented the first major use of an engineered material. Telford built his bridge in the late 1700s and it carries a full load of rail and road traffic still to this day.

The 1800's and early 1900's experienced countless engineering failures. Thousands of lives were lost in addition to great sums of money and energy, because the nature of materials and design calculations were not fully known and/or understood. Important lessons were learned , but the costs were very high. Prevention of these disasters was a major drive towards the regulation of the engineering profession, which was soon to come.

English Engineers which were instrumental in the Industrial Revolution included such greats as Thomas Newcomen and James Watt. Some of the famous British engineers who worked on the building of the railways as the industrial revoluiton began to flourish were: Thomas Telford, Isambard Brumel, Robert Stephenson, Joseph Locke, and many others.

In the early part of this century, the British government decided to restrict who could design projects and regulate the profession, in order to try to reduce the unacceptablely high number of engineering accidents and failures that were occuring. The term "Chartered Engineer" was born, and a strict licensing system was introducted. Extensive systems of exams and schools were set up to ensure that all Chartered Engineers had the knowledge and skills to ensure that only work of the highest standard and regard for soceity was produced. Strict codes of ethics were also introduced to ensure that Engineers only acted noblely and make it possible for them to face legal action if they acted discordantly.

In Ontario (Canada), first attempts to regulate the profession were made in 1899, with the Professional Engineers Act being finally passed into law by the Provincial Legislature in 1922. The Act founded a voluntary association to look after the regulation of the new "Professional Engineers" called the "Associated of Professional Engineers of Ontario" (APEO). But in 1937, to more tightly regulate the profession, membership in the association was made manditory. The term "engineer" in the old sense then diasappeared and only "Professional Engineers" were allowed to practice from that point on. In 1992, APEO changed it's name to "Professional Engineers, Ontario" (PEO) and to this day it adminsiters the profession of engineering in Ontario under the authority of the Act. In addition to upholding the Act, which was last ammended in 1990, the PEO also maintains its own regulations, by-laws and code of ethics. All engineers in Ontario must be licensed by the PEO.

Since the founding of the PEO (as it is known today), only individuals with engineering licenses are allowed to practice as engineers. The licensing process is a long one requiring extensive education (either through a university degree or a series of exams), internships and an ethics exam. The entire process is administered and regulated by the PEO and it's various boards. Engineering is a closed profession which means only qualified people are allowed to practice due to the licensing requirements. Engineering is a tightly controlled profession that has no tolerance for negligence, laziness or questionable ethics. Engineers who violate these guidelines are severly punished and may even be disbarred from the engineering profession.

Engineering has come a long way, since the primative designs for trechabalts of medievil military engineers and chariots of the designers of ancient times. As new materials are discovered and what is now known as the "Information Age" begins to flourish, Enginering will continue to evolve along with society. The changes that lie ahead, will prove to be a challenging and interesting future for us all.

Why Engineering Rocks!

Of course, I know your answer will be...."Because the guy who did this web page is studying Systems and Computer Engineering!"---yeah, right :)

On a more serious note: engineering is a well-respected profession that has almost limitless opportunities for advancement and opportunities to use all of one's skills, abilities and knowledge. It is a career where a person can continue to grow both professionally and personally for their entire life. When you graduate from an Engineering program you have a profession all lined up for you--there is none of the "post-graduation blues" and sense of emptyness. Engineering is a strong and noble profession that has a bright future. And the pay is pretty decent, to boot!

Besides.....Everyone knows that Engineering Students have the best parties and the most school spirit! Check out our song, Lady Godiva's Hymn!

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Related Links


Print Media

  • Victorian Engineering. Rolt, L.T.C.. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: 1970. 300 pages.
  • Introduction to Professional Engineering: Fifth Edition - Third Printing (Special Edition for the University of Guelph). Andrews, Gordon & Ratz, Herbert. Faculty of Engineering, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: 1997. 286 pages.
  • "Guelph Engineering is 125 Years Old". Snapp'd: University of Guelph Engineering Newspaper. University of Guelph Engineering Society, Guelph, Ontario, Canada: issue #5, January 20, 1999.



  • 1 Thomas Telford was born at Westerkirk, Scotland in 1757 (died 1834). He was one of Scotland's most famous Civil Engineers and worked on bridge, road and canal projects in Scotland, England and Wales. Many people make the mistake in saying that Telford was English since he was born in the U.K. (inside of which Scotland is located). Throughout the golden age of engineering (1st and 2nd Industrial Revolutions) there were many great engineers from the U.K. Telford is one of the most famous since he was the first of great stature. Many thanks to Ken Maxwell, Principal Bridge Engineer with GHD (Australia) for clarifying this for me (June 21, 2004).

Content last updated: March 2, 2000.
Minor corrections: June 21, 2004