“Engineering is the discipline and profession of applying technical and scientific knowledge and utilizing natural laws and physical resources in order to design and implement materials, structures, machines, devices, systems, and processes that safely realize a desired objective and meet specified criteria.”
American Engineers' Council for Professional Development (ECPD, the predecessor of ABET) has defined engineering as follows:
“The creative application of scientific principles to design or develop structures, machines, apparatus, or manufacturing processes, or works utilizing them singly or in combination; or to construct or operate the same with full cognizance of their design; or to forecast their behavior under specific operating conditions; all as respects an intended function, economics of operation and safety to life and property.”
One who practices engineering is called an engineer, and those licensed to do so may have more formal designations such as European Engineer, Professional Engineer, Chartered Engineer, or Incorporated Engineer. The broad discipline of engineering encompasses a range of more specialized sub disciplines, each with a more specific emphasis on certain fields of application and particular areas of technology.
The concept of engineering has existed since ancient times as humans devised fundamental inventions such as the pulley, lever, and wheel. Each of these inventions is consistent with the modern definition of engineering, exploiting basic mechanical principles to develop useful tools and objects.
The term engineering itself has a much more recent etymology, deriving from the word engineer, which itself dates back to 1325, when an engine’er (literally, one who operates an engine) originally referred to a constructor of military engines.
The word “engine” itself is of even older origin, ultimately deriving from the Latin ingenium (c. 1250), meaning “innate quality, especially mental power, hence a clever invention.”
Later, as the design of civilian structures such as bridges and buildings matured as a technical discipline, the term civil engineering entered the lexicon as a way to distinguish between those specializing in the construction of such non-military projects and those involved in the older discipline of military engineering.
The Acropolis and the Parthenon in Greece, the Roman aqueducts, Via Appia and the Colosseum, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Pharos of Alexandria, the pyramids in Egypt, Teotihuacán and the cities and pyramids of the Mayan, Inca and Aztec Empires, the Great Wall of China, among many others, stand as a testament to the ingenuity and skill of the ancient civil and military engineers.
The earliest civil engineer known by name is Imhotep. As one of the officials of the Pharaoh, Djosèr, he probably designed and supervised the construction of the Pyramid of Djoser (the Step Pyramid) at Saqqara in Egypt around 2630-2611 BC. He may also have been responsible for the first known use of columns in architecture.
Ancient Greece developed machines in both in the civilian and military domains. The Antikythera mechanism, the earliest known model of a mechanical computer in history, and the mechanical inventions of Archimedes are examples of early mechanical engineering. Some of Archimedes' inventions as well as the Antikythera mechanism required sophisticated knowledge of differential gearing or epicyclic gearing, two key principles in machine theory that helped design the gear trains of the Industrial revolution and are still widely used today in diverse fields such as robotics and automotive engineering.
Chinese and Roman armies employed complex military machines including the Ballista and catapult. In the Middle Ages, the Trebuchet was developed.
An Iraqi by the name of al-Jazari helped influence the design of today's modern machines when sometime in between 1174 and 1200 he built five machines to pump water for the kings of the Turkish Artuqid dynasty and their palaces. The double-acting reciprocating piston pump was instrumental in the later development of engineering in general because it was the first machine to incorporate both the connecting rod and the crankshaft, thus, converting rotational motion to reciprocating motion.
The first electrical engineer is considered to be William Gilbert, with his 1600 publication of De Magnete, who was the originator of the term "electricity".
The first steam engine was built in 1698 by mechanical engineer Thomas Savery. The development of this device gave rise to the industrial revolution in the coming decades, allowing for the beginnings of mass production.
With the rise of engineering as a profession in the eighteenth century, the term became more narrowly applied to fields in which mathematics and science were applied to these ends. Similarly, in addition to military and civil engineering the fields then known as the mechanic arts became incorporated into engineering.
Electrical Engineering can trace its origins in the experiments of Alessandro Volta in the 1800s, the experiments of Michael Faraday, Georg Ohm and others and the invention of the electric motor in 1872. The work of James Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz in the late 19th century gave rise to the field of Electronics. The later inventions of the vacuum tube and the transistor further accelerated the development of Electronics to such an extent that electrical and electronics engineers currently outnumber their colleagues of any other Engineering specialty.
The inventions of Thomas Savery and the Scottish engineer James Watt gave rise to modern Mechanical Engineering. The development of specialized machines and their maintenance tools during the industrial revolution led to the rapid growth of Mechanical Engineering both in its birthplace Britain and abroad.
Chemical Engineering, like its counterpart Mechanical Engineering, developed in the nineteenth century during the Industrial Revolution. Industrial scale manufacturing demanded new materials and new processes and by 1880 the need for large scale production of chemicals was such that a new industry was created, dedicated to the development and large scale manufacturing of chemicals in new industrial plants. The role of the chemical engineer was the design of these chemical plants and processes.
Aeronautical Engineering deals with aircraft design while Aerospace Engineering is a more modern term that expands the reach envelope of the discipline by including spacecraft design. Its origins can be traced back to the aviation pioneers around the turn of the century from the 19th century to the 20th although the work of Sir George Cayley has recently been dated as being from the last decade of the 18th century. Early knowledge of aeronautical engineering was largely empirical with some concepts and skills imported from other branches of engineering. Only a decade after the successful flights by the Wright brothers, the 1920s saw extensive development of aeronautical engineering through development of World War I military aircraft. Meanwhile, research to provide fundamental background science continued by combining theoretical physics with experiments.
Engineers apply the sciences of physics and mathematics to find suitable solutions to problems or to make improvements to the status quo. More than ever, Engineers are now required to have knowledge of relevant sciences for their design projects, as a result, they keep on learning new material throughout their career. If multiple options exist, engineers weigh different design choices on their merits and choose the solution that best matches the requirements. The crucial and unique task of the engineer is to identify, understand, and interpret the constraints on a design in order to produce a successful result. It is usually not enough to build a technically successful product; it must also meet further requirements. Constraints may include available resources, physical, imaginative or technical limitations, flexibility for future modifications and additions, and other factors, such as requirements for cost, safety, marketability, productibility, and serviceability. By understanding the constraints, engineers derive specifications for the limits within which a viable object or system may be produced and operated.
Engineers use their knowledge of science, mathematics, and appropriate experience to find suitable solutions to a problem. Engineering is considered a branch of applied mathematics and science. Creating an appropriate mathematical model of a problem allows them to analyze it (sometimes definitively), and to test potential solutions. Usually multiple reasonable solutions exist, so engineers must evaluate the different design choices on their merits and choose the solution that best meets their requirements.
As with all modern scientific and technological endeavors, computers and software play an increasingly important role. As well as the typical business application software there are a number of computer aided applications specifically for engineering. Computers can be used to generate models of fundamental physical processes, which can be solved using numerical methods.
There are also many tools to support specific engineering tasks such as Computer-aided manufacture (CAM) software to generate CNC machining instructions; Manufacturing Process Management software for production engineering; EDA for printed circuit board (PCB) and circuit schematics for electronic engineers; MRO applications for maintenance management; and AEC software for civil engineering.
There exists an overlap between the sciences and engineering practice; in engineering, one applies science. Both areas of endeavor rely on accurate observation of materials and phenomena. Both use mathematics and classification criteria to analyze and communicate observations. Scientists are expected to interpret their observations and to make expert recommendations for practical action based on those interpretations.