For a profession based on forward thinking, science and careful calculations, engineering is steeped in tradition. Here’s a few customs celebrated by engineers here and around the world.
1. Canada’s Iron Rings
In Canada, young engineers are initiated into the profession through the century-old tradition of the ‘The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer’.
The idea was conceived in 1922, when the seven past presidents of the national engineering society asked English author Rudyard Kipling (of The Jungle Book fame) to design the ritual and write the oath recited at the initiation. Created with the purpose of instilling a sense of responsibility into engineers, the first ceremony took place in 1925.
The binding of young initiates to a promise of sound and ethical workmanship is in the form of an iron ring, worn on the pinky finger of the working hand. The first rings were rumoured to be derived from the wreckage of the twice-collapsed Quebec Bridge. The first collapse in 1907, which killed 75 workers, took place after the original calculations went unchecked.
The design and placement of the Iron Rings, which scrape across plans and blueprints, is intended to serve as a constant reminder to avoid “bad workmanship”.
“Try to imagine in 1926, when this was first done. There were maybe 10 engineering grads in a year back then so you would have a very small and intimate group of people,” said Concordia University Engineering Professor Robert Paknys. “That is the kind of spirit that we try to preserve.”
In 2019, there were 18,154 engineering graduates in Canada – which means a lot more rings, now made of stainless steel, are passed around. When engineers retire, it’s common for them to return the rings to be passed down to the next generation.
The Iron Ring tradition served as inspiration for the establishment of “Order of the Engineer”, which formed in the 1970s in the United States, upholding American engineers to many of the same principles.
These days, even young Australian engineers are getting in on the action with Western Australian-based engineering students establishing Iron Ring Australia in 2021.
2. Honouring St Barbara, patron saint of tunnellers
St Barbara, who was well-known for her beauty, was born in the mid-third century in Heliopolis, Phoenicia. After her mother died, young Barbara’s father locked her away in a tower to protect her, allowing only pagan teachers to visit.
As legend would have it, St Barbara met a cruel fate, tortured and beheaded by her father after converting to Christianity. He too met an untimely end, struck by lightning as punishment for her murder.
In her honour, the feast of St Barbara, celebrated on 4 December, was first introduced in Rome in the 12th century.
In the engineering profession, the vengeful lightning serves as a connection to the explosives used in tunnelling and mining. The tradition persists today, with tunnel-boring machines (TBM) given female names and small shrines to St Barbara erected at tunnel entrances.
These rituals are common in Australia too, said Charles MacDonald, member of the Australian Tunnelling Society’s (ATS) Executive Committee.
“I was at the West Gate Tunnel in March 2022, Australia’s largest and most recent tunnel, and there, in front of this huge TBM called Bella (after Bella Guerin, the first woman to graduate from a university in Australia in 1883), there is a small statue of St Barbara,” he said.
“The tradition is very real and many tunnellers won’t proceed unless there is a St Barbara ceremony to initiate the tunnel.”
In 2018, to make the St Barbara’s Day feast more inclusive, ITA Young Members Group, together with ATS, formed World Tunnel Day, held in the first week of December.
This year, ATS is celebrating the St Barbara’s Day feast on 1 December with networking dinners for its various chapters.
You can read more about St Barbara in a special edition of the ATS journal, the upcoming 50th anniversary report.
Packing lucky space peanuts
What makes a space mission successful? For NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), world-class technology aside, it’s a lucky pack of peanuts.
Back in the early 1960s, when the US was first attempting to launch probes towards the moon via the Ranger Project, JPL built several automated spacecraft to gather pictures and data, and eventually crash on the moon’s surface.
While the first six Rangers were unsuccessful, the seventh, launched on July 28, 1964 was triumphant – bolstering the US ahead in the space race.
But what do peanuts have to do with Ranger 7’s success? The mission’s trajectory engineer, Dick Wallace, thought a little nosh ahead of the launch might calm people’s nerves.
“I thought passing out peanuts might take some of the edge off the anxiety in the mission operations room,” said Wallace. “The rest is history.”
Ever since, the peanuts have made an appearance ahead of every important launch or mission.
In fact, when they were forgotten, disaster struck, including a spacecraft going awry after launch and a 40-day delay for another mission.
The nuts weren’t present at the first Cassini launch in 1997, when bad weather led to a postponement. Luckily they were handed out two days later, when Cassini successfully lifted off.
The Cassini-Huygens mission, which orbited Saturn and explored its moons and rings, completed its first 4-year venture in 2008.
Before Cassini was purposely crashed on Saturn in 2017, a lucky jar of peanuts was spotted on a console in mission control of JPL’s Space Flight Operations Facility.
More recently, in 2021, the peanuts were present as engineers and scientists waited for the Perseverance rover to land on Mars.
We are ready! This is @NASAPersevere’s entry, descent, and landing (EDL) team, excitedly tossing lucky peanuts. They’ve ensured the rover is best equipped for a successful landing on #Mars. Watch the live landing show starting at 2:15pm ET / 11:15am PT https://t.co/dY9HOzumzw pic.twitter.com/jGQIkSpxEf— Thomas Zurbuchen (@Dr_ThomasZ) February 18, 2021
“Director of Planetary Science Lori Glaze and I have our @nasajpl lucky peanuts at hand. Just under 3 hours until @NASAPersevere’s landing!” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.
With the peanuts proving time and time again to be a symbol of success, original proponent Wallace stressed that indulging in the salty snacks is far from a superstition.