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We can trace the development of civilization to the present day through engineering hallmarks like Stonehenge, the Egyptian pyramids, the ancient cities of Greece, the extensive system of roadways and aqueducts built by the early Romans, Europe's construction of fortresses and cathedrals, the invention of dams, electricity, the automobile, the airplane, the building of canals and cross-continental railways, nuclear energy, and putting a man on the moon.
The rise of the first cities in 3000 B.C. in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) created a need for engineers, though there was certainly no concept of what an engineer was then. These early "engineers" did not apply scientific principles to their work, but rather they learned by example, from mistakes, and from the urgency of pure need.
The first prominent engineer, whose architectural legacy has survived millennia, was the ancient Egyptian builder Imhotep. He designed and built what is commonly believed to be the first pyramid, the Step Pyramid, around 2650 B.C., just outside of present-day Cairo, Egypt. Modern engineers marvel at the skills the ancient Egyptians demonstrated in the building of the pyramids.
The engineers of ancient Greece studied more complex principles of geometry and put them to use in advanced architectural designs. The Greek engineers employed materials like iron, lead, limestone, and marble.
Whereas the Greeks were the theorists of early engineering, the Romans were the projectors and administrators. They busily set out to construct many great public works, like building roads, bridges, tunnels, aqueducts, and even plumbing for each city home. Rome's major concern for establishing a system of civil engineering was to aide its war machine. Military engineers were responsible for building roads and bridges (to better access future conquests, assure quick communications, and protect their empire), and baths (to relax the warriors after battle), and of course, for developing a variety of weaponry.
Modern engineering's true beginnings are mostly rooted in the 17th and 18th centuries, where mathematical principles and laws of physics began to be understood and developed. Isaac Newton's groundbreaking research in mathematics and physics was quickly picked up by engineers and put to practical use. Aside from enlightening the world about gravity, Newton's work in mechanics produced the generalization of the concept of Force, the formulation of the concept of Mass (his First Law), and the principle of Effect and Counter-Effect (his Third Law). Other mathematicians and engineers of the time, enlightened by Newton's findings, went on to make mathematical discoveries that paved the way for the work of future engineers.
It wasn't until the 18th century that the first schools of engineering were established. In 1775, the U.S. Continental Congress stated, "That there be one Chief Engineer at the Grand Army … [and] that two assistants be employed under him …," and thus began the United States Corps of Engineers. This new need for engineers prompted the beginning of scientific schools at Harvard (1847), Yale (1861), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1865), and other engineering schools.
Armies needed easy ways to get from point A to point B, so roads and bridges had to be built. It was also around this time that the civil engineer came on to the scene as a separate discipline. When military engineers built roads, bridges, canals, and other public works, they tended to build them only when it served a very specific military purpose. In 1771, John Smeaton, the first self-proclaimed civil engineer, founded the Society of Civil Engineers with the objective of bringing together like-minded engineers and other men with financial resources to design and build public works.
New processes for manufacturing iron and steel made their use more common in all branches of engineering, which was evidenced by the first suspension bridge, erected by J. Finley in the United States in 1801. A suspension bridge is suspended by cable attached to and extending between supports or towers—a modern-day example is the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
The 19th century marked the dawn of electrical engineering. Once these scientists laid down the principles of the field, other engineers, inventors, and scientists put these principles to practical applications, like Samuel Morse's invention of the telegraph in 1837, Alexander Graham Bell's telephone in 1876, Thomas Edison's light bulb in 1878, and Nikola Tesla's electric motor in 1888. By the early 20th century, much of the infrastructure of modern society as we know it was coming to light.
The first major engineering feat of the 20th century was Orville and Wilbur Wright's first controlled flight of a powered airplane. Aeronautical engineering, as it came to be known, was a dangerous endeavor at its outset, and early engineers labored for a long period of time without significant success.
By 1914, just in time for the first World War, militaries fitted their planes with radios, navigational equipment, and guns. Planes were also designed to haul and drop bombs. European navies invested heavily into submarine research. The German navy, although a latecomer to the submarine, was the early leader in this technology, and during World War I its U-boats were greatly feared by Allied ships at sea.
In the race to develop the atomic bomb, the U.S. government spearheaded the Manhattan Project to study and develop nuclear power. As nuclear engineers began to realize the awesome potential of nuclear energy, schools were established to study this extremely dangerous new technology.
In the 1950s, the Cold War brought about fierce technological and military competition between the United States and Russia, necessitating the services of all types of engineers. The exploration of space became another area where engineers sought to demonstrate their country's technological dominance. In 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first orbiting satellite. The United States countered with its own satellite, Explorer I, in early 1958. In the early 1960s, Russia and America set their sights on the moon and engineers from both countries worked feverishly to be the first to land a man on the moon. And in 1969, the world was awestruck when U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped from his spacecraft onto the rocky surface of the moon.
In the 21st century, two types of engineering have risen in importance and prevalence: software and computer engineering and environmental engineering. In the 2000s, most devices or appliances in use include some kind of computer for specific functions, from automobiles to washers and dryers. As a result, computer and software engineers are more in demand. An emphasis on remediating the environment and reducing humankind's footprint on nature has led to stricter environmental regulations. This has led to the need for environmental engineers who can examine a company's methods and materials and make recommendations for making them more environmentally friendly. These engineers also work with companies to ensure they meet all government regulations. Environmental engineers use the principles of engineering, soil science, biology, and chemistry to develop solutions to environmental problems. They can be involved in efforts to improve recycling, waste disposal, public health, and control of water and air pollution.
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