A Social History of Engineering
by Walter Armytage


Walter Armytage charts technological developments with special reference to Britain and shows how these developments have been affected by social life. Also, he describes the origins of innovations and institutions [1].

Preamble: the difference between Engineering and Technology

Herbert Spencer observed 'How often misused words generate misleading thoughts! Many people telescope technology and engineering together, or see engineering as a subset of technology. However this may be doing an injustice to the understanding of both.

Walter Armytage writes that G.E Davis, the first secretary of the Society of Chemical Industry, launched in 1881, said 'to produce a competent chemical engineer, the knowledge of chemistry, engineering and physics must be co-equal. Chemical Engineering must not be confounded with either Applied Chemistry or Chemical Technology as the three studies are distinct. Chemical Engineering runs through the whole range of manufacturing while Applied Chemistry simply touches the fringes of it and does not deal with engineering difficulties in the slightest degree. Chemical Technology [on the other hand] results from the fusion of the studies of Applied Chemistry and Chemical Engineering and becomes specialised as the history and detail of certain manufactured products' [p.214].

Early engineering

This period begins in 3000 BCE and goes through to the start of Anglo-French civilisation in 1100. It covers Sumerian, Mycenaean [pre-classical Greece], Phoenician eras before moving on to the Classical Greeks, Romans and eastern influences coming into Europe.

Early European engineering to 1740

From 1100 there was a marked increase in building of castles and cathederals in France , town planning took off in Britain and generally there was a fascination with all things mechanical. The power revolution began with the building of larger numbers of wind and water mills.

The wars of Edward III in France, where cannon was used for the first time in 1345, drove the demand for metal. The use of gunpowder stimulated chemistry and many other industries but weakened feudal institutions and generally turned engineers attention away castles, cathedrals and catapults.

The age of craft went through a boom period from the beginning of the 13th century. Guilds were created to provided technical training, protection against competition and under-cutting, and to look after the welfare of members.

In the 14th century, the Renaissance in Italy had a strong effect on science and engineering. Florence became an industrial town and a new cosmology was developed by Nicolaus Copernicus. Also a scientific language was developed in the 15th and 16th centuries through the refinement and sophistication of mathematics, and the development of the first national academies in science, between 1560 and 1677.

The Germans significantly advanced mining and metallurgy from 1450 onwards. The main event which separated the the Renaissance from the Middle Ages was printing and here Walter Armytage notes, German technology was decisive. Also, one of the most significant ideas in engineering in Germany at this time was the compressed air pump which was demonstrated in 1679. This allowed transmission of force other than by shafts and levers. This eventually was to lead to the development of reciprocating engines. Pumps were used in Britain to good affect to drain water from mines and marsh land.

The technological era really took off in Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries with the cross-pollination of ideas between artisans and men-of-learning. During this period the first of the Royal societies was formed and publication of technological literature commenced. Also the very first self-powered engines were developed.

The journey to large scale industrial and research enterprises

The first step was the power revolution which occurred from 1740 to 1800. In this period there were improvements to reciprocating engines leading to the perfection of the steam engine by Matthew Boulton and James Watt followed by its use to power equipment in industrial factories.

In France, canal building had a high priority for military reasons, and commerce immediately made use of these. The need for well-trained engineers for military and civil work lead to the establishment in 1716 of the Corp des Ingenieurs des Ponts et Chaussées. The French Government realised that for it, in an uncertain Europe, the most precious asset was human talent and this lead to the formation of École Polytechnique, the prototype technical training institution. The legacy of this organisation was a cadre of systematically trained engineers with a matchless theoretical background.

Civil engineering works in Britain also required training of engineers, and generally there was a need to diffuse skills and knowledge. One outcome of this was the formation of the first of a then ever increasing number of learned socities. Another was the establishment, by far-sighted individuals, of private training institutions.

The age of the mechanical engineer, from 1815 to 1857, saw the expansion of railways, roads and new ideas in building construction, one example being the Crystal Palace built for the Great Exhibition of 1851. In electrical engineering the telegraph replaced the semaphore. Britain, in the period 1815 to 1854, saw a quickening of industrialization and further specialization in engineering.

Walter Armytage points out that a genuine interest in technology grew within the population and he calls the organizations which arose to cater for this the 'Steam Intellect Societies'. These were made up of working-class people driven by interest as well seeing an opportunity to use knowledge to improve their lot and move away from degrading labour. This lead to the establishment of some 700 mechanics Institutes in Britain by 1841. With the demands of industry for trained engineers, the talented amateur of science and engineering needed to be replaced by the systematically trained professional engineer.

In this period, the demand for metal surged because of both military and civilian needs. In the Crimean War, in 1854, the French demonstrated the effectiveness of armour plating ships. In Britain, steel rails were began to replace iron ones in railways. Around about the same time, the cost of production of iron was reduced significantly. Henry Bessemer patented a process to remove impurities from the molten metal and William and Fredrick Siemens invented the regenerative furnace which recouped lost heat. The age of metal and machinery had begun in earnest, leading in turn to the establishment of large-scale industrial units.

Progress was also rapid in other nations. In America, the Civil War provided a fillip to northern industry and gave rise to a number of innovative institutions and businesses. These included the establishment of land grant colleges, MIT being the most well known of these, the Patent Office and the Smithsonian Institution which was set up to encourage research into natural science. Thomas Edison created a laboratory in Newark in 1869 [Ed: and the research and development laboratory to create products, some say, was his greatest lasting achievement] and he went on to form the Edison General Electric Company in 1889. John Shaw Billings and Herman Hollerith worked on calculating machines for the compilation of US census statistics and Billings went on to set up the Tabulating Machine Company and this eventually became IBM.

German innovation covered many areas. State laboratories were set up to drive dissemination of knowledge, and industrial research and innovation. Germany became the home of chemical engineering. As well, work on high speed reciprocating engines lead to the development of the compression-ignition engine and the car industry. German innovation up to the early part of the 20th century covered many other areas: production of nitrate (Fritz Haber), new drugs (Paul Ehrlich), radio transmission (Heinrich Hertz), X-rays (Wilhelm Röntgen), Quantum Theory (Max Planck). Sir Swire Smith in Britain noted "Germany was seen as offering a classic example of the development of an economy through the complex interaction of innovators, entrepreneurs and bankers."

The ever quickening, widening and specialising pace of engineering

Electrical industry started with the development of incandescent lighting in 1879 and when steam engines were coupled to dynamos to create turbo-electric generators to supply electrical power on a large scale. Chemical engineering developed at a pace to cater for the demands for new and better products for an urbanised population. The internal combustion engine drove developments across a broad range of fronts including materials engineering. Telecommunications began with the patenting of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 and this was taken up in Germany, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries a year later.

a large number of professional institutions were set up in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries to cater for the ever specialising nature of new engineering fields. Apart from civil, mechanical, electrical and chemical institutions specialties like refrigeration, illumination, railway signaling, public health, concrete structures and many more appeared in order to share knowledge and encourage expertise.

The two World Wars accelerated the pace of development even further in Europe and the USA. The aircraft, chemical, petroleum, motor vehicle, road engineering, and wireless industries came of age. Production engineering developed in the USA out of the need to achieve large scale production in an economic way and efficiency became an important driver and the Taylor system, in one or other form, was adopted almost universally. Apart from the continued growth in the number of engineering societies catering for the specialised fields, broader institutions were also formed to look after the status of engineers and their professional security.

Walter Armytage has considered many other issues as well. The impact of India on British engineering, America's contribution in some detail, and the investment in engineering education in Russia after the 1917 revolution and the engineering achievements which followed [Ed: as best as these could be attributed at the time when this book was written]. In Britain, in particular, he describes the social adjustment up to 1914 that came about from the rise of engineering. He also looks at the intense purpose and planning from mid-1930 to the end of the Second World War.

Looking backwards and forwards

Armtage looks at the changes which motivated British industry after the Second World War. Emerging from the war with high debt, run down investments, export markets which disappeared, he notes "so instead of enjoying a relaxed peace, Britain had to reorganise and redeploy its industrial forces and intensify production efforts to win a battle for subsistence and survival." He lists numerous products that have flowed from this effort. He looks to the rise of Europe and Britain's uncertain place in it [Ed: and even to today].

Looking both backwards and forwards, he notes that "[t]he unitary concept of engineering ... has now been broken up by the prism of need into a spectrum band of professions each qualified by an adjective. This spectrum is widening at either end." At one end he places the crudely surgical; efficient motorways, for example. At the other is the delicate harnessing of elements in nature that will be used in biological engineering.

Walter Armytage ends his history in 1976 reflectively by looking at the more intangible aspects of engineering. One is the aesthetic nature of artifacts which he observes were called "frozen music" by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He notes that the that aesthetic is no less true, for example, of the products of chemical engineers as it is of bridges - both profoundly effect the progress of mankind. He goes on to argue that the engineer and the technologist contribute something more than their structures and products to society. For without them he notes, science would probably degenerate into a series of casuistic exercises. That is, engineering and technology are positioned between the frontiers of new knowledge on one hand, and equipment and structures proven by success on the other. It is this position which enables engineers to act as the most successful revolutionists of our time.


[1] W.H.G. Armytage
      A Social History of Engineering
      Faber and Faber, London
      Fourth Edition, 1976.
      ISBN 0 571 04864 I

[2] Herbert Spencer
      The Principles of Ethics
      Volume 1, Part 2, Section 8: Humanity, para. 152, p. 426
      Liberty Fund Inc., Indianapolis 1978
      (following the text of the edition published in 1897
      by D. Appleton and Company, New York)
      ISBN 0-913966-77-0