Our wide-ranging specialties lack a common core of knowledge.
Throughout the world, the medical profession is most commonly associated with the rod of Asclepius—a snake entwined about a staff. This symbol stems from Greek mythology, in which Asclepius was the god of medicine and healing, and is incorporated into the logo of groups ranging from the American Medical Association to the World Health Organization.
The legal profession is symbolized on many a courthouse façade by a representation of blindfolded Justice holding a pair of scales—and sometimes a sword in her other hand—an image that also has roots in Greek culture. Lady Justice is said to represent Themis, the goddess of justice and law, but whatever its ancient origins, the symbol is universally associated with the legal profession today.
Is there an equally universal and deeply rooted symbol of the engineering profession? The image of Archimedes using a lever to move the Earth has ancient origins, but unfortunately it is not nearly so commonly associated with engineering as the rod and scales are with medicine and law.
The official seal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers does incorporate Archimedes’ lever, but it is generally used only on official documents. The society’s more frequently seen letterhead is topped by a logo comprising a stylized ASME with the Earth rising behind the letters, seemingly eclipsed by them. The globe is at best a rather indirect evocation of the lever—and of engineering.
The medical and legal professions obviously have their specialties, but all grow out of common curricula. Engineering education used to have as many as two common years before the specialized curriculum took over. All engineering students, regardless of discipline, took engineering mechanics, in which they might calculate as a homework exercise the forces on the lever of Archimedes and thus quantify his task.
The lever of Archimedes had the potential of grounding all engineering students in a single symbol of their profession. Even when they drifted apart to study electrical or chemical engineering, the lever could still constitute a metaphor for what all engineers were capable of doing. They might not only move the Earth but also move information all around it and remove undesirable greenhouse gases from it. Indeed, working together in modern interdisciplinary teams, engineers can realize things of which Archimedes and his contemporaries could never have dreamed.
For decades now, engineering schools have moved away from a common core curriculum. First-year engineering students may have physics, chemistry, math and writing courses in common, but their first engineering courses are major-specific. The power of Archimedes’ lever as a unifying, albeit metaphorical, tool has been lost, and the engineering profession is denied a universal symbol with the weight, tradition and distinction of those of the legal and medical professions.
Indeed, the Biomedical Engineering Society incorporates into its logo not a symbol of engineering but of medicine—the rod of Asclepius. The logo of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers consists of a pair of arrows representing the right-hand rule of electromagnetism on a diamond-shaped shield symbolizing Benjamin Franklin’s kite. A quick look at the logo evokes the rod of Asclepius. The National Society of Professional Engineers, whose members span more than one discipline, incorporates into its logo the integral sign of mathematics rather than any obvious symbol of engineering. And the National Academy of Engineering, which encompasses all of engineering, has as its principal symbol a bridge—a viaduct—symbolizing a “linking of engineering and society,” rather than engineering itself. While these disparate symbols have defensible rationales, collectively they represent a missed opportunity to unite engineering under one deeply rooted and universal symbol.
Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest book is The Toothpick: Technology and Culture, about a certain kind of lever.