From Archimedes’ invention of the water screw to the construction of the first steam engine, the history of humanity’s technological progress is, in large part, the history of engineering breakthroughs. Even today, we tend to associate different cultures with their most visible feats of engineering, whether that’s the Colosseum in Rome, the Great Pyramids of Egypt, or the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Perhaps even more impressive are the numerous small miracles of engineering that we tend to overlook in our day-to-day lives: the irrigation networks that bring fresh water to our kitchen tap, the elevators that take us from one level to another at the local shopping mall, or the ‘designer’ medications we take to treat countless health problems.
Behind each of these accomplishments is a person (or team of people) who specialise in taking insights from mathematics, science, economics, and other disciplines, before applying them to the process of innovation. Such professionals are known as engineers, and their influence can be seen in fields as varied as computing, mechanics, civil construction, medicine, architecture, and more.
It’s one thing to be able to come up with a revolutionary idea but it’s another to be able to put that idea into practice and make it a reality. In the broadest terms, engineers are the professionals who aim to bridge this gap between concept and execution. Their title – engineer – comes from the Latin ingenium, which, unsurprisingly, means ‘cleverness’.
Let’s take an example of an engineering feat: human flight. The idea is relatively straightforward: allow a person to leave the ground and soar through the heavens like a bird. However, the execution frustrated engineers for many hundreds of years. In the Ancient Greek myth, Daedalus attempted flight (and escape from a labyrinth he had himself created) by designing large wings to which feathers were affixed with wax. This did not end particularly well for his son Icarus, whose wings melted when he flew too close to the sun. This put an end to early experiments in human flight.
Much later, during the Renaissance, Leonardo Da Vinci drew upon his studies of bird flight to design an impressive, but ultimately impractical, flying machine called the ‘ornithopter’. He also sketched prototype gliders, hot air balloons, and parachutes.
Finally, in the 19th century, human flight, as it were, ‘took off’. Hot air balloons became commonplace across Europe. More importantly, the English engineer Sir George Cayley arrived at a coherent understanding of basic aviation principles, such as weight, lift, drag, and thrust. So, the field of modern aeronautical engineering was born.
However, Cayley – despite building the first glider to successfully carry a human – predicted correctly that sustained flight wouldn’t be possible until other engineers developed a lightweight engine. It took another hundred years and the invention of the gasoline engine – then, in 1903, the engineers Orville and Wilbur Wright, achieved the dream at last, flying their manned plane for twelve seconds at the thrilling altitude of three metres above the ground.
What does the history of flight tell us about engineering? First, engineers aim to solve a specific problem – they begin their work with a well-defined objective, whether that’s designing faster microchips or coming up with a more hygienic way for people to dry their hands in public restrooms.
Second, while engineers often dabble in science, they are not loyal to any one discipline. Instead, they borrow freely from them, taking whatever is necessary. Thus, the first manned flight relied on insights from maths, physics, mechanics, climatology, materials design, and so on.
Finally, the pursuit of one goal in engineering can often lead to, or draw upon, various complementary innovations. For example, the dream of human flight awaited the invention of the gasoline engine. A mere fifty years later, spaceflight – the next frontier – would drive breakthroughs in computing, food science, astronomy, robotics, and more.
In short, engineering is about a process rather than an outcome. It’s the process of using one’s technical skills – maths, programming aptitude, chemistry, or something else – to tackle a problem while keeping one’s mind open to game-changing insights that often come from unexpected places. This process can be applied to various categories of problem, and this has given rise to the specialities we most often talk about today – civil engineering, mechanical engineering, pharmaceutical engineering, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, etc.
If you’re looking for a challenging role that will allow you to apply your education and skills creatively to pursuits that grow and improve lives, engineering is a great place to start. Graduate opportunities can be found across a broad range of areas and industries, including telecoms, consumer goods manufacturing, energy, mining, the built environment, health, education, and pharmaceuticals. While most engineers are employed by private organisations, they are also indispensable in the public sector, providing guidance to defence, government, local councils, federal research bodies (like CSIRO), and other departments.
Engineering roles cover a wide expanse of duties, including research, product design and development, management and commercial responsibilities. Many graduates are attracted to the sector by opportunities for travel and the satisfaction that comes from seeing their designs turned into finished products.
From the first hot air balloon in 1793 to the first manned airplane flight in 1903, people have long dreamed of using the principles of science to achieve the power of flight. Nowadays, those principles are applied by aerospace engineers, who lead the way in designing vehicles for use within, and beyond, the earth’s atmosphere.
Aerospace engineers draw on computer science, physics, earth sciences, and maths to design, build, and test flying machines. This profession includes aeronautical engineers, who focus on aircraft, and astronautical engineers, who focus on spacecraft.
They are responsible for mastering the intricacies of topics such as propulsion, aerodynamics, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, flight mechanics, and structural analysis. Due to the demanding nature of these disciplines, many aerospace engineers choose to specialise and often have specific job titles, such as design aerospace engineer, computational fluid dynamics engineer, and materials aerospace engineer.
If you’re planning a career in aerospace engineering, it’s important that you can demonstrate a high degree of aptitude in maths and the sciences. Indeed, this is necessary to enter and successfully graduate from the growing number of aerospace engineering degrees. Once you begin your career, it will be advantageous to possess curiosity, creative thinking skills, and the ability to work well within diverse teams. You may also benefit from continuing your education by completing a relevant masters program or pursuing professional accreditation.
Chemical engineering involves the development, manufacture, and practical application of chemical products, usually in industrial quantities. This often entails the assessment of the processes and equipment used to produce chemicals. It also involves supervising the use of those chemicals to generate secondary products, such as plastics, metals, pharmaceuticals, and food products.
Chemical engineers receive a broad education in the fundamentals of chemistry, physics, mathematics, and, of course, engineering itself. This prepares them for stimulating roles across a range of industries, from mining to manufacturing.
In addition to their technical skills – the importance of which can’t be overstated – chemical engineers also benefit from accuracy, meticulousness, a commitment to process-based thinking, and a strong sense of responsibility. Given the range of roles in which chemical engineers may find themselves, it’s also important that chemical engineers have strong interpersonal skills and the ability to thrive in diverse workplaces.
The work of civil engineers (also known as structural engineers) is behind much of the built environment that surrounds you each day. Civil engineers draw on a strong understanding of physics, maths, hydraulics, geology, and various other principles. They then apply this knowledge to the safe construction of buildings, dams, roads, bridges, airstrips, water purification plants and more. Their overall goal is to modify the natural environment in ways that make it more conducive to human endeavours, while, increasingly, ensuring that such modifications are sustainable and low-impact.
Civil engineers are employed by a broad range of industries, including construction, consulting, mining, and transportation. They may have various responsibilities. For example, consultant engineers often assist in the development of blueprints for an entire project or advise on the practicality of existing designs. This can mean borrowing insights from fields such as economics, demography, and ecology.
Other civil engineers may focus on more specific building projects, such as the laying of pipes or the construction of railways. Hence the proliferation of specialist titles such as ‘transportation engineer’ and ‘water resources engineer’. To become a civil engineer, it helps to augment your technical skills with a strong work ethic, communication skills, and a penchant for working methodically through complex problems with great accuracy.
Electrical engineers oversee the design, development, and manufacturing of tools and equipment used in the production and distribution of electricity. This equipment commonly includes generators, transformers, electric motors, and electric ignition systems. Electrical engineers have been behind several transformative innovations, such as the development of modern audio encoding protocols (such as MP3), as well as new advances in virtual reality. For what it’s worth, Rowan Atkinson – whom you may know better as Mr Bean – also has a degree in electrical engineering.
To achieve their goals, electrical engineers apply concepts from physics, mathematics, computer science, and engineering. The omnipresence of electrical devices in modern life (and science, and technology) means that electrical engineers are highly sought after.
Many electrical engineers choose to specialise, which can result in slightly different titles. For example, an electronics engineer focuses on the components – including capacitors, transistors and microprocessors – that comprise larger electrical devices. While a high degree of technical aptitude is vital when dealing with electricity, attributes such as curiosity, perseverance, and a passion for science are also highly advantageous.
Environmental engineers tackle the challenges posed by waste management. In this context, ‘waste’ is a broad term that applies to solid waste, wastewater, toxic waste, hazardous materials, and air pollution. Every industry produces waste in some form or another, and, as a result, the field of environmental engineering is very broad. Generally, its practitioners focus on one of three ‘environments’: air, land, or water.
By drawing on a nuanced understanding of physics, mathematics, ecology, and chemistry, environmental engineers seek to understand the relationship between industry and its environmental impact before advising on ecologically sound and economically viable solutions.
In doing so, they also aim to prevent or mitigate the consequences of poor waste management practices, which can include air pollution, water contamination, and public health crises. For example, they may work with a chemical processing plant to develop ways to render dangerous substances inert before they are disposed of responsibly.
Environmental engineers require a strong command of the physical sciences, and also benefit from excellent written and verbal communication skills.
Manufacturing engineers oversee a broad range of processes related to the research and design of new products, as well as the tools, processes, and equipment required to produce them. In this context, the manufacturing process encompasses all of the steps involved in efficiently turning a raw material (or variety of raw materials) into a finished product.
Because manufacturing often involves, for example, chemical, mechanical, or robotic challenges, ‘manufacturing engineer’ is a label sometimes applied to other engineering specialists (such as chemical engineers) who choose to focus on the manufacturing process. However, a specialist manufacturing engineer is distinguished by his or her holistic focus on manufacturing, which often involves dealing with overarching concepts such as fabrication and automation, as well as methodologies including ‘agile’ or ‘lean’ manufacturing.
To improve efficiency and cost-effectiveness, manufacturing engineers draw on principles from various sciences, such as statics, mechatronics, circuit analysis, and fluid mechanics. They may also implement principles from project management and business studies.
Thanks to their adaptability, manufacturing engineers are employed in various industries, from IT to defence, that rely on the consistent output of high-quality products. Successful manufacturing engineers possess a keen eye for detail, the ability to focus on the big picture, and highly developed interpersonal skills.
The ocean is this planet’s final frontier, with the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimating that only five per cent of the world’s oceans have been explored.
Marine engineers are at the forefront of efforts to finish the task, taking responsibility for the design, construction, and maintenance of w