Canada’s Extremely Bizarre Engineering Rituals and the Fascinating Way They Came to Be
“I, Simon Whistler, in the presence of these my betters and my equals in my Calling, bind myself upon my Honour and Cold Iron, that, of the best of my knowledge and power, I will not henceforward suffer or pass, or be privy to the passing of, Bad Workmanship or Faulty Material in aught that concerns my works before mankind as an engineer, or in my dealings with my own Soul before my Maker.”
Thus begins the Obligation of the Ritual of the Calling of the Engineer. With these words, Canadian engineering graduates affirm their commitment to the moral and ethical standards of engineering. Then, in a private ceremony steeped in Masonic ritual, they are presented with the unique and storied symbol of their profession: the Iron Ring.
As you might have gathered, Canada handles the profession of engineering rather differently than most countries. Unlike in many places, where mechanics, technicians, and other tradespeople are often referred to as “engineers,” in Canada the use of the title Professional Engineer or “P.Eng” is highly regulated and reserved for those engaging in:
“…any act of planning, designing, composing, evaluating, advising, reporting, directing or supervising, or managing of any of the foregoing, that requires the application of engineering principles and that concerns the safeguarding of life, health, property, economic interests, the public welfare or the environment.”
In order to be designated a Professional Engineer, an individual must graduate from a four-year engineering program at an accredited university, work in the profession for at least four years under the supervision of a Professional Engineer, and complete a Professional Practice Exam. Qualifying applicants are then presented with a certificate and a personalized rubber stamp or “seal” with which to approve and sign off on engineering drawings. But like a medical license, a P.Eng designation comes with significant responsibility, and failure uphold the moral and ethical standards of the profession -either through negligence or deliberate fraud – can result in severe disciplinary action, including revocation of one’s P.Eng status, fines, or even legal prosecution and imprisonment. Those falsely using the title “Professional Engineer” without actually holding P.Eng status are also subject to prosecution. All this is administered by 13 provincial and territorial Engineering Associations. In Canada, Engineering is a “self-regulating” profession, with each province and territory passing an Engineering Act creating a local Engineering Association and empowering it to administer the licensing, regulation, and disciplining of Professional Engineers.
The need for such strict control of the engineering profession was informed, as is much regulation, by a terrible tragedy. The Quebec Bridge crosses the St. Lawrence river at St. Foy, around 7 kilometres west of Quebec City. At 549 metres long, it remains the longest cantilever bridge in the world. Though the site of the bridge had been chosen as early as 1852, construction did not get underway until 1900. The project was a collaboration between the Canadian Government, the Quebec Bridge Company, and the Phoenix Bridge Company, who appointed Edward Hoare as chief engineer, Theodore Cooper as consulting engineer, and P.L. Szlapka as design engineer. Though all three men had excellent reputations and were considered highly competent, shortly after construction began serious problems with the bridge began to appear, with beams bending and buckling in unexpected ways. The site supervisor, Norman McClure, attempted to warn Hoare and Cooper of the danger, only for Cooper to assure him that the problem was minor and that the beams must have been bent prior to installation. Though at McClure’s continued urging Cooper and Szlapka would make nominal efforts to correct the bridge’s design, on August 29, 1907 the unfinished span collapsed and plunged into the icy river below, sending 75 workers to their deaths. It was the single worst bridge construction disaster in history.
The Royal Commission appointed to investigate the disaster uncovered a number of disturbing errors in judgement which ultimately lead to the collapse. Though Chief Engineer Hoare had a reputation for integrity and good judgement, like many engineers at the time he was not formally educated and had acquired his engineering skills through apprenticeships and practical experience. He had also never supervised the construction of a bridge over 100 metres in length. The Commission judged Hoare technically incompetent to supervise such a massive project and his appointment as Chief Engineer to have been a mistake. However, Hoare’s actual contribution to the disaster was minimal, as the entire project was in fact under the direct control of Cooper, and it was on his actions and those of design engineer Szlapka that the Commission placed the bulk of the blame. As originally designed, the bridge had an unsupported span of 488 metres, but shortly into the project Cooper ordered the piers moved closer to the shore, increasing the span to 549 metres. Such a change should have prompted a recalculation of structural stresses and a revision of the design, but despite criticism from other engineers Cooper refused to do so. Similarly, when he and Szlapka added additional girders to correct the bending and buckling encountered during construction, standard procedure would have been to recalculate the “dead load” or unloaded weight of the bridge. But again Cooper failed to revise his calculations, and continued to use the original dead load figure even though the bridge was now much heavier than before. Finally, Cooper refused to actually visit the construction site and communicated with site supervisors only by letter and telegram, leading to miscommunications and an unauthorized resumption of work which eventually resulted in the fatal collapse.
Despite being blamed for the disaster, Cooper and Szlapka escaped formal disciplinary action, and after two years construction on the Quebec Bridge resumed – though under the supervision of a new engineering team. Progress was slow due to budget issues and the outbreak of the First World War, and on September 11, 1916 disaster struck again when the central span broke loose while being lifted into place, sending 13 more workers plunging to their deaths. The Quebec Bridge was finally completed and opened to traffic on December 3, 1919, its construction having consumed two decades, $23 million (about $350 million today), and 88 lives.
The Quebec Bridge disaster was a wake-up call for the engineering profession, gravely illustrating the dangers of technical incompetence and unethical behaviour as engineering projects became more and more ambitious and larger in scale. In 1919, the year of the bridge’s completion, the Engineering Institute of Canada – formerly the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers – passed a model Engineering Act mandating the licensing and regulation of engineers in Canada. The following year the act was adopted by all but three provinces and territories, though the rest would soon follow, with Prince Edward Island being the last to pass engineering legislation in 1955. In addition to ensuring public safety and preventing future disasters, these acts also sought to improve the societal standing of engineers, who had helped open up the country and develop its natural resources but had not, many felt, received the recognition they deserved. The establishment of formal governing bodies would, it was hoped, confer upon engineers the same respected status enjoyed by doctors and lawyers.
At the same time, many felt that the engineering profession needed its own set of traditions and symbols to bind its members closer together and remind them of their moral and ethical obligations to society and the profession. Among these was civil engineer and former Engineering Institute of Canada president Herbert Haultain, who in 1922 along with six other former EIC presidents founded a body known as the Corporation of the Seven Wardens. To create the rituals and symbols of engineering, Hultain turned to British writer Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book, Kim, The Man Who Would Be King, and other classic works of Victorian and Edwardian literature. Not only did many of Kipling’s works celebrate engineering, but Kipling himself, like many of the Wardens, was also a Freemason, and the rituals he developed were appropriately masonic in flavour. Kipling created both an Obligation for newly-graduated engineers to recite, and a ceremony during which the recitation would take place, known as the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer. According to Kipling, the purpose of the oath and ritual was:
“…[to direct] the young engineer towards a consciousness of his profession and its significance, and indicating to the older engineer his responsibilities in receiving, welcoming and supporting the young engineers in their beginnings…many young engineers, and even older ones, out struggling in the world, would find it both tonic and refreshing to be obligated.”
The inaugural Ritual was conducted on April 25, 1925 at the University Club of Montreal, with members of the Seven Wardens obligating six new engineers. On May 1, three of these new inductees obligated a further 14 engineers at the University of Toronto, which became the Corporation’s first regional chapter or “camp.”
Today, the Ritual of the Calling of the Engineer continues to be administered by the Corporation of the Seven Wardens, which is currently divided into 27 regional camps. Typically performed in the spring around the time of university graduation, participation in the ritual is closed to all but wardens of the local camp, the student engineer inductees, and licensed professional engineers invited by the Wardens or students. While the ritual is not secret per se, it is, per the Corporation’s charter, private, and participants are discouraged from publicly divulging details of the ceremony. However, the author of this video, who himself graduated as an engineer in Canada, can report that the ritual involves an unusual prop: a full-sized blacksmith’s anvil with lengths of chain trailing from it. The ceremony begins with one of the presiding Wardens lifting a hammer and striking “seven blows on cold iron,” a reference to the original Seven Wardens and Kipling’s 1910 poem Cold Iron. This is followed by a recitation, originally from 2 Esdras in the King James Bible:
And I said, Tell on, my lord. Then said he unto me, Go thy way, weigh me the weight of the fire, or measure me the blast of the wind, or call me again the day that is past.
Then answered I and said, What man is able to do that, that thou shouldest ask such things of me?
In more recent years, however, this has largely been replaced by Kipling’s 1935 poem The Hymn of Breaking Strain:
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!
The inductees are then made to take hold of the chains trailing from the anvil and recite the Obligation quoted at the start of the video. This was intended by Haultain and the other six Wardens to be the engineering equivalent of doctors’ Hippocratic Oath, though Kipling insisted upon calling it an Obligation rather than an Oath or Pledge.
Finally, the Ritual reaches its climactic point, when the invited professional engineers bestow upon the inductees with the unique symbol of their profession: the Iron Ring. Another Kipling invention, the Iron Ring is a small band of wrought iron or stainless steel with sharp hammered edges, worn on the little finger of an engineer’s dominant or “working” hand. The ring is designed to rub against drawings or computer keyboards as the engineer works, its sharp edges serving as a constant reminder of their solemn obligation to the public and their profession and the dire consequences of sloppy or unprofessional work. While it is commonly claimed that the Iron Rings are made of steel salvaged from the collapsed Quebec Bridge, this is in fact a myth; in reality the rings are made from ordinary commercial-grade steel. However, as a symbol they are unique to the Canadian engineering profession, and can be used to spot a Canadian engineer at a glance. They also make handy bottle-openers.
Neither the Iron Ring nor the Ritual of the Calling of the Engineer are requirements for graduation, nor do they indicate the attainment of Professional Engineer status. Indeed, as the Iron Ring ceremony is conducted upon graduation, the inductees will not yet have attained the 4 years’ practical work experience required to become Professional Engineers. Nonetheless, nearly 100 years after their introduction, these rituals continue to play a central role in Canadian engineering culture, with thousands of new graduates taking the Obligation each year and proudly wearing the Iron Ring. And despite the overtly Masonic overtones of the Ritual of the Calling of the Engineer, the author has assured us that Canadian engineering is not a cult – though of course that’s exactly what a cult member would say…
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Considerably less formal and solemn than the Ritual of the Calling of the Engineer is the student tradition of “purpling.” Every year thousands of engineering students across Canada dye themselves head-to-toe purple using an over-the-counter medication called Gentian Violet, typically used for treating topical fungal infections. The colour purple has been associated with engineering since at least 1863, when the Royal Navy introduced a system of colours to differentiate between officers of different sections: red for surgeons, grey for shipwrights, and purple for engineers. This system carried over into the merchant navy, and according to Canadian engineering tradition the practice of purpling originated as a tribute to the engineers on the Titanic, who valiantly chose to stay below and slow the sinking of the ship. However, the exact origins of the student practice have been lost to time. But whatever its origins, despite its popularity purpling comes with certain disadvantages. Not only is Gentian Violet now classified as a possible carcinogen, but it is also an extremely persistent dye. Thus, while purpling is usually carried out during frosh week before the start of classes, its practitioners remain distinctly coloured for weeks afterward, the dye slowly wearing off and leaving telltale purple stains all over campus. But like we said: totally not a cult…Expand for References
Andrews, Gordon, Canadian Professional Engineering and Geoscience: Practice and Ethics, Thomson Nelson Canada Ltd, 2005
Kipling, Rudyard, The Hymn of Breaking Strain, 1935, http://www.cuug.ab.ca/~branderr/risk_essay/hymn_strain.html
2 Esdras 4:5-10, https://thekingjamesversionbible.com/2-esdras-4-5-10
Bateman, Chris, The Secrets of Engineering’s Strange and Mysterious Initiation Ritual, TVO, April 24, 2018, https://www.tvo.org/article/the-secrets-of-engineerings-strange-and-mysterious-initiation-ritual
Background: The Calling of an Engineer, The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer, https://www.ironring.ca/background-en/
Anderson, Bill, Why Engineering is Purple, April 16, 2019, https://profbillanderson.com/2019/04/16/why-engineering-is-purple/
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About a decade ago I was travelling from Seattle to the University of British Columbia for some graduate courses. While part of a group session I was asked what I do for a living. I replied “Software Engineering”.
Immediately a “real” engineer in the group jumped all over me and asked to see my ring. I quickly realized what she was getting after and asked her engineering degree. She replied “electrical”.
I replied that I’d stop calling myself an engineer when electrical engineers stopped coming to me constantly asking for a job in software engineering. Nothing more was said.