With U.S. infrastructure crumbling, an honor oath summons engineers to do no harm
This spring, just like any other year, thousands of young North American engineers will graduate from their respective colleges ready to start erecting buildings, assembling machinery, and programming software, among other things. But before they take on these complex and important tasks, many of them will recite a special vow stating their ethical obligations to society, not unlike the physicians who take their Hippocratic Oath, affirming their ethos toward the patients they would treat. At the end of the ceremony, the engineers receive an iron ring, as a reminder of their promise to the millions of people their work will serve.
The ceremony isn’t just another graduation formality. As a profession, engineering has ethical weight. Moreover, engineering mistakes can be even more deadly than medical ones. A doctor’s error may cost a patient their life. But an engineering blunder may bring down a plane or crumble a building, resulting in many more fatalities. When larger projects—such as fracking, deep-sea mining or building nuclear reactors—malfunction and backfire, they can cause global disasters, afflicting millions. A vow that reminds an engineer that their work directly affects humankind and their planet is no less important than a medical oath that summons one to do no harm.
The tradition of taking an engineering oath began over a century ago in Canada. In 1922, Herbert E.T. Haultain, professor of mining engineering at the University of Toronto, presented the idea at the annual meeting of the Engineering Institute of Canada. The seven past presidents of that body were in attendance, heard Haultain’s speech and accepted his suggestion to form a committee to create an honor oath. Later, they formed the nonprofit Corporation of the Seven Wardens, which would oversee the ritual. Next year, in 1923, with the encouragement of the Seven Wardens, Haultain wrote to poet and writer Rudyard Kipling, asking him to develop a professional oath for engineers. “We are a tribe—a very important tribe within the community,” Haultain said in the letter, “but we are lacking in tribal spirit, or perhaps I should say, in manifestation of tribal spirit. Also, we are inarticulate. Can you help us?”
While Kipling is most famous now for “The Jungle Book” and perhaps his poem “Gunga Din,” he had also written a short story about engineers, “The Bridge Builders.” His poem “The Sons of Martha” can be read as a celebration of engineers:
It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.
It is their care that the wheels run truly; it is their care to embark and entrain,
Tally, transport, and deliver duly the Sons of Mary by land and main.
Kipling accepted the ask and wrote the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer, which he sent to Haultaina month later. In his response to Haultain, he stated that he preferred the word “Obligation” to “Oath.” He wrote the Obligation using Old English lettering and the old-fashioned capitalization. Kipling’s Obligation binds engineers upon their “Honor and Cold Iron” to not “suffer or pass, or be privy to the passing of, Bad Workmanship or Faulty Material,” and pardon is asked “in the presence of my betters and my equals in my Calling” for the engineer’s “assured failures and derelictions.” The hope is that when one is tempted to shoddy work by weakness or weariness, the memory of the Obligation “and the company before whom it was entered into, may return to me to aid, comfort, and restrain.”
Using the Obligation, The Seven Wardens created an induction ceremony, which seeks to unify the profession and recognize engineering’s ethics, including responsibility to the public and the need to make the best decisions possible. The induction ceremony included recitation of Kipling’s “Obligation” and incorporated an anvil, a hammer, an iron chain, and an iron ring. The inductee engineers sat inside an area marked off by the iron chain, with their more senior colleagues outside that area. At the start of the ritual, the leader beat out S-S-T in Morse code with the hammer and anvil—the letters standing for Steel, Stone, and Time. A more experienced and previously obligated engineer placed the ring on the small finger of the inductee engineer’s working hand. As per Kipling, the ring’s rough, faceted texture symbolized “the young engineer’s mind” and the difficulties engineers face in mastering their discipline.
A persistent myth purports that the original iron rings were made from the beams or bolts of the Quebec Bridge that failed twice during construction.
The first induction ceremony took place on April 25, 1925, in Montreal to obligate two of the Seven Wardens, along with four graduates from the University of Toronto class of 1893. On May 1 of that year, 14 more engineers were obligated at the University of Toronto. From that time to today most Canadian professional engineers have gone through that same ritual in their various camps, called Kipling camps—local chapters associated with various Canadian universities.
Henry Petroski, Duke University’s professor of civil engineering and history, notes in his book, “Forgive Design: Understanding Failure,” that Kipling’s poem “Sons of Martha” is often read as part of the ritual. However, sometimes inductees read Kipling’s “Hymn of Breaking Strain,” instead, which graphically depicts disastrous outcomes of engineering mistakes. The first stanza of that poem says:
The careful text-books measure
(Let all who build beware!)
The load, the shock, the pressure
Material can bear.
So, when the buckled girder
Lets down the grinding span,
'The blame of loss, or murder,
Is laid upon the man.
Not on the Stuff—the Man!
As if to strengthen the importance of these concepts, a persistent myth purports that the original iron rings were made from the beams or bolts of the Quebec Bridge that failed twice during construction. The bridge spans the St. Lawrence River upriver from Quebec City, and at the time of its construction was the world’s longest at 1,800 feet. Due to engineering errors and poor oversight, the bridge’s own weight exceeded its carrying capacity. Moreover, engineers downplayed danger when bridge beams began to warp under stress, saying that they were probably warped before they were installed. On August 29, 1907, the bridge collapsed, killing 75 of 86 workers. A second collapse occurred in 1916 when lifting equipment failed, and thirteen more workers died.
The ring myth, however, couldn’t be true. The original iron rings couldn’t have come from the failed bridge since it was made of steel, not wrought iron. Today the rings are made from stainless steel because iron deteriorates and stains engineers’ finger black.
On August 14, 2018, Morandi Bridge over Polcevera River in Genoa, Italy, collapsed from structural failure, killing 43 people.
The Seven Wardens decided to restrict the ritual to engineers trained in Canada. They copyrighted the obligation oath in Canada and the United States in 1935. Although the ritual is not a requirement for professional licensing, just like the Hippocratic Oath is not part of medical licensing, it remains a long-standing tradition.
The American Obligation of the Engineer has its own creation story, albeit a very different one. The American Order of the Engineer (OOE) was initiated in 1970, during the era of the anti-war protests, Apollo missions and the first Earth Day. On May 4, 1970, the National Guard shot into a crowd of protesters at Kent State University, killing four people. The two authors of the American obligation—Cleveland State University’s (CSU) engineering professor John Janssen and his wife Susan—reflected these historical events in the oath they wrote. Their version of the oath binds engineers to “practice integrity and fair dealing.” It also notes that their “skill carries with it the obligation to serve humanity by making the best use of the Earth’s precious wealth.” As Petroski explains in his book, “campus antiwar protestors around the country tended to view engineers as complicit in weapons proliferation [which] prompted some [CSU] engineering student leaders to look for a means of asserting some more positive values.”
Kip A. Wedel, associate professor of history and politics at Bethel College, wrote in his book, “The Obligation: A History of the Order of the Engineer,” that the ceremony was not a direct response to the Kent State shootings—it was already scheduled when the shootings happened. Yet, engineering students found the ceremony a positive action they could take in contrast to the overall turmoil. The first American ritual took place on June 4, 1970, at CSU. In total, 170 students, faculty members, and practicing engineers took the obligation. This established CSU as the first Link of the Order, as the OOE designates its local chapters. For their first ceremony, the CSU students fabricated smooth, unfaceted rings from stainless steel pipe. Later they were replaced by factory-made rings. According to Paula Ostaff, OOE’s Executive Director, about 20,000 eligible students and alumni obligate themselves yearly.
Societies hope that every engineer is imbued with a strong ethical sense and that their pledges are never far from mind. For some, the rings they wear serve a daily reminder that every paper they sign off on is touched by a physical reminder of their commitment.
These ethical and responsible engineering practices are especially salient today, when one in three American bridges needs repair or replacement, some have already collapsed, and engineers are working on projects related to the bipartisan infrastructure bill President Biden signed into law in 2021. Canada has committed $33 billion to its Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program. At the heart of these grand projects are many thousands of professional engineers, collectively working millions of hours. The professional vows they took aim to assure that the homes, bridges and airplanes they build will work as expected.