By Eric W. Tappert, PE
That was the question from across the dinner table at an IEEE meeting that I was attending. For those not familiar with the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), it is the largest technical professional organization in the world with more than 423,000 members around the world. At the table were engineers from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, France, South Africa, and Australia. That, in itself, was a very satisfying experience. But the question directed at me was a bit confusing, so I responded with an admission that I was from the United States and asked what prompted the question. The answer: “I saw your ring.”
So I explained that it wasn’t the Canadian ring, but rather the Order of the Engineer ring from south of the border. He held up his hand and with some pride showing and said “My ring is the Canadian version.” That led to a lively discussion of the ring that fascinated the others at the table. So, what’s with the ring?
The story of the Canadian engineers’ ring goes back nearly a century. Professor H. E. T. Hamilton of the University of Toronto convinced another six past president’s of the Engineering Institute of Canada that something needed to be done to generate a ceremony and a standard of ethics for graduating engineers in the country. The seven past presidents wrote a letter in 1922 to Rudyard Kipling, a famous poet and author, requesting him to write the ceremony and the “obligation” that the students would commit to. The result was the “Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer”. It should be noted that Kipling had a few years earlier toured the railways of Canada and was very impressed with engineering.
“The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer has been instituted with the simple end of directing 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.”
— Rudyard Kipling, from notes by Dr. J. Jeswiet
The first ceremony at the University of Toronto on May 1, 1925, led by three of the engineers installed at the inaugural ceremony a few days before in Montreal. The University of Toronto became the first chapter.
During the ceremony, initiates recite and accept the obligation, which resembles a code of ethics. The ceremony isn’t a “secret”, but those receiving and having the ring are admonished not to discuss the ceremony. The ceremony is also limited in attendance to those already having the ring and the initiates, thus it is not a “public” event. Each initiate receives a ring for the little finger of their working hand to signify they have accepted the obligation and to serve as a constant reminder of their responsibilities. When they retire from active engineering, they return their ring to the Corporation of the Seven Wardens, which holds the rights and has the duty to carry out the ritual.
The Corporation of the Seven Wardens is divided into 26 regional branches, called Camps. The term Camp is used to instill as sense of a smaller, close knit community. The purpose of the obligation is to direct the newly qualified engineer toward a consciousness of the profession and its social significance and indicating to the more experienced engineer their responsibilities in welcoming and supporting the newer engineers when they are ready to enter the profession.
The original rings were made of iron, but that has been supplanted by stainless steel. Only one Camp still has the iron ring as an option. There are a couple of interesting legends about the Ritual. One says that the idea was prompted by the failure, during construction, of the bridge over the Saint Lawrence River at Quebec City in 1907. There may be some truth to that, but one must take into account that during the first couple decades of the 19th century the Canadians were building their transcontinental railroad system. Bridges were apparently failing rather often and the Quebec Bridge was merely a very dramatic example as there were a total of 75 lives lost. It is more likely that it played “the straw that broke the camel’s back” role. The other legend is that the first rings were made from the iron of the failed bridge at Quebec City. That bridge failed in 1907 but the first ceremony wasn’t held until 1925. It truly stretches the imagination that the ruins of the bridge hadn’t been recycled in the intervening 18 years.
Canadian engineering students look forward to getting their rings in the spring term of their senior year. In fact, many view the ring as more important than their diploma. Kipling’s ceremony continues to this day, binding together the engineers of Canada. Getting a ring doesn’t enable legal engineering practice as that is the province of the government authorities. Participating in Kipling’s ceremony, virtually unchanged in almost a century, does however, lead to a close community of ethical engineers.
Next time: The Ring Goes South
If you would like to join the Order of the Engineer, PSPE is holding a ceremony on Thursday, September 19, 2019, during our annual conference. Register for the full conference, the day, or simply lunch and the ceremony. Indicate your ring size and we’ll see you there. Details can be found here. We look forward to seeing you!