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Honoring St. Patrick

Sure and ’tis a fine legend that he was an engineer.

Photo: HENRY PETROSKI - A great day for missed classes, green beer, and kissing the Blarney Stone. The patron saint of engineers is said to be St. Patrick, but the origins of the belief are obscure. According to one story, which maintains that Irish records had long been misinterpreted, St. Patrick did not drive snakes out of Ireland but rather drove stakes into its soil and thus must have been a surveyor or engineer. Another contorted explanation is that he was the mechanical engineer responsible for the “worm drive.” Proponents of such views also have claimed that the American Society of Mechanical Engineers deliberately designed its old four-leaf-clover logo to resemble a shamrock.

The connection of St. Patrick to engineering celebrations is said to have begun during excavation for a new building at the University of Missouri at Columbia. There, on March 17, 1903, a rock bearing a Gaelic inscription was unearthed, and someone in the crowd proclaimed that the writing on what came to be known as the Blarney Stone said, “St. Patrick was an engineer.” The students cut classes for the rest of the day and paraded around campus celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.

The St. Patrick movement spread among engineering schools, and in 1919, representatives from 11 of them met at Missouri and founded a national Guard of St. Patrick. Some secular schools objected to the connection with a saint, and so the organization’s name was changed to the Association of Collegiate Engineers, out of which is believed to have grown such annual campus events as Engineers Day and Engineers Week—not to be confused with National Engineers Week, which is usually celebrated around February 22, the birthday of George Washington, another surveyor-engineer.

My father-in-law, who went to Missouri’s rival School of Mines (now the Missouri University of Science and Technology) at Rolla, was active as a Guard of St. Patrick, and was made a Knight of St. Pat in 1933. The faux-Irish wording on his certificate from the association recognized, among other things, that he cut classes “j’fully on the day o’ me name,” and he was ever ready to pay homage to the patron saint, perhaps by raising a glass of green beer with his fellow engineers.

No permanent national organization appears to have continued to coordinate St. Pat activities or to preserve the movement’s history. In recent decades, the purpose of the loosely structured group generally has been to recognize senior engineering students and faculty for their leadership and to bring together the movers and shakers of the diverse engineering societies. There may be active chapters at some other engineering schools, but ironically, the groups have often remained secretive.

At my university, a typical March 17 induction activity was to paint green shamrocks on the walkway (and on any rocks or lampposts beside it) leading to our engineering school. The ceremony itself consisted of hooded and robed senior members, the Knights of St. Patrick, showing up at a classroom door and summoning new inductees, who had been tapped previously, to proceed to the front of the engineering building. There, often among confused passersby, they were instructed to hold one of their shoes over their head while reciting a pledge to adhere to the values of the little-known society that seemed to surface but once a year. Though I participated in such a ceremony, I have not seen one take place in some time.

The tradition of the Knights of St. Patrick does remain strong at Rolla, where a statue of St. Pat commands a prominent position on campus, and also at Mizzou, where the knighting ceremony, in which inductees kneel and kiss the stone, continues to be a centerpiece of that campus’s Engineers Week.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest book is The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems.




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