May 25, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

The History of Engineering

6 min read

Part of studying history is about linking first appearances all the way to modern use, or to their disappearance.

That is almost impossible with the history of engineering. Engineering is a term with many definitions. There are also only a few direct links. The need to build, and to adapt buildings to the environment, is basic to human beings. Because of this, the development of different machines and discovery of different sources of power did not only happen in one place. 

For the early history of engineering, we look at the first appearances of two things: machines and sources of power. The appearances are not always related or connected.

Thankfully, after a certain point in history, the links become clearer. As education and the publishing world expanded, so did engineering techniques and machines. We will continue to look at sources of power and how they changed the world.

Early History of Engineering

The 3 first simple machines

There are 6 simple machines. They are the basic parts of every complex machine we see today, even the ones that go into space. A civilization cannot advance to complex machines without first discovering the first 3 simple machines. 

The lever and fulcrum. But the earliest proven use of a lever for practical purposes is a balance beam for weighing things in Egypt, from around 5000 BC. It has all the elements: a lever, a fulcrum, and applied force. 

The wheel and axle. We have the first civilization, Mesopotamia, to thank for this one. The wheel is remarkable because it has no match, or prototype, in nature. Human beings used only their hands and feet to do what they needed for 300 years since the start of Mesopotamia in 3500 BC. The first wheel was created for pottery, not movement. Finally, in 3200, someone attached a wheel-and-axle to a box, attached it to a horse, and invented the chariot. 

The inclined plane. The inclined plane is the only one of the 3 simplest machines that already exists in nature. Anything generally flat with an upwards slant is technically an inclined plane. The most famous example of its engineering-related use is for the pyramids. The first pyramid was built, as a Step Pyramid, by the Egyptian architect Imhotep (around 2600 BC). Imhotep, who served the Pharaohs of Egypt, is generally considered the first engineer.

The simple machines enhance human strength as a source of power. When did we move on from using humans + simple machines to other sources of power?

The first sources of machine power

The first sources of power were human strength and, we assume from the building of the chariot, possibly animal strength. For the history of engineering, we look at power sources harnessed from the elements.

Water-powered machines. By 400 BC, the first water wheels and water mills were used to power machines in the Persian Empire (modern-day Iran and Iraq). Wheels with blades or buckets would be lowered into a running stream. The stream would turn the wheel at a consistent and constant pace, allowing the machine to run as long as the water was flowing with steady speed and volume.

Wind-powered machines. By the 800s AD, wind was first used to power mills and pumps in an area that is now split between Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. They continued to use these throughout the Golden Age of Islam (800s to 1400s AD). There is no certain proof that these wind-powered machines were the forerunners of similar machines in Europe, later on.

The Renaissance and the Steam-Powered Pump (1600s)

Why are we bringing the Renaissance into the picture? Without mathematics and science returning in full force during the Renaissance in Europe (1401 AD to the 1600s), there may not have been sufficient knowledge to take the world from water- and wind-powered machines to steam-powered ones. 

Steam has been part of our medical history for years, and used in a vast number of ways. However, water vapor without the application of engineering knowledge is just a sauna. What steam needed was timing and opportunity.

The opportunity came in the form of the boom of glassmaking, which entered Britain in the 1500s. To make and shape glass, glassmakers needed continuously roaring furnaces. Their main fuel source, coal, came from mines. When the mines got flooded by rain or underground wells, they would haul the water out bucket by bucket.

This made coal mining slow and tedious, and made coal-dependent products very expensive. Finally, in 1698, a British man called Thomas Savery legally patented a steam-powered pump. The steam was used to create a vacuum that would draw the water out from the mine. While it had been theoretically possible before that, this was the first time mathematics and science had advanced enough to make its success possible. 

Steam power moved into two realms: manufacturing and transportation. These two together contributed to the boom of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Factories could be built anywhere, not just where there was water for power. Goods could quickly be carried from one point to another. This was the area that would eventually become Mechanical Engineering. 

Electric Power and the Flow of Information (1800s)

Where do we begin? Like simple machines, electricity has been around for as long as lightning has existed. Of course, Benjamin Franklin’s lightning and key experiment in 1759 is the first that alerted us to the fact that lightning is actually electricity. Before then, the familiar form of electricity was static. Literally. While there was an idea that it could be a power source, that didn’t happen until the 19th century.


To be more specific, until 1800. In 1800, Alessandro Volta invented the ancestor of the modern battery. Volta’s invention now allowed different machines to be independently powered. The first earliest electricity-powered device was a telegraph, by British inventor Francis Ronalds. The first electricity-powered machine, on the other hand, was a direct current (DC) electric motor prototype by scientist Joseph Henry from the United States. 

By the 19th century, it was almost like the early history of engineering again. There was so much shared information and travel that discoveries were being made in different nations, by different people. It was more of a race to the finish line than a direct step from one discovery to another. 

What made this era of discovery very different is the free flow of information from one part of the Western world to the other. From the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment (1685-1815) came a passion for science and a sharing of information. Frankenstein, the book by Mary Shelley, depicts how powerfully the love for discovery was growing, challenging even ethics and orthodoxy.

If you study the timeline of electrical engineering closely, you will notice something different from all the other periods: detailed, published works of different experiments and their results. Different universities and societies released papers that were read by scientists and inventors who had access to them. For the first time in engineering history, information was being shared, and used, all over the Western world at the same time. 

The Modern Age of Engineering

The modern age of engineering is already the application of simple and complex machines, and various forms of power and energy generation to drive those machines. Even nuclear power and geothermal power are used to generate electricity that powers machines. 

Have we discovered everything there is to discover? Maybe not. As the branches of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and newer forms like chemical engineering arise, we might yet discover more sources of power, more ways to build machines. But for now, in the modern age of engineering from the 20th century onwards, we are enjoying the discoveries and innovations of the entire history of engineering. 

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